Taking the subway uptown to the boogie-down Bronx, we hit up the TATS Cru boys to check out their studio. It’s in the middle of a community centre; pretty fittingly for one of the longest-standing crews in graffiti, who also give a lot back to the neighbourhood they grew up in. The rougher edges have worn down a little, but a few blocks the wrong way and you could still be in trouble. New York City’s quick to remind you when you’ve put a foot down wrong… We caught up with BIO, Nicer and BG183 for a history lesson and an insight into their New York ahead of their latest group show – Blood, Sweat and Tears – at Toy Tokyo Underground in New York.
More jump off after the jump off…
VNA: So what was New York like for you guys growing up?
BIO: Growing up, New York was a different place, say 20, 25 years ago, it was more of a Wild West mentality, but I don’t think anyone was acting that way, that was just normal day to day living, it was the way shit operated.
Nicer: There definitely wasn’t a lot of police, like there is nowadays. Back then the police department wasn’t as out there as they are now.
BIO: But they’ve always been tough, you know, no nonsense, back then you were more likely to get smacked up before you got locked up (laughs).
BG183: It was like fashion, in the 70’s, you had more expensive stuff you wore to fit in with a different crowd, if you walked into a different neighbourhood, there was a chance you might get robbed. People got stuck up because they had expensive sneakers, or a chain around their neck.
BIO: But you look back and you think those sneakers were only, like, twenty-five dollars, the jacket was only like 75-80 dollars, but back then, that was the expensive shit, you know?
VNA: Does that still happen here?
BIO: Oh yeah, you get robbed for Jordans, you get robbed for Moncler, you wear expensive jackets, you definitely gonna get robbed.
BG183: Right now, the fashion is phones, the more expensive a phone you got, the more likely you gonna get jacked.
VNA: That’s happening a lot in London too right now, London and New York are really similar for bike and phone crimes…
BG183: Back then, you didn’t really have electronics, but they were still taking your walkman or your radio.
BIO: We used to get robbed for boomboxes boy! Hell yeah.
VNA: How did your painting fit into that?
Nicer: The painting was just something that existed in New York City, it was part of the whole culture, you grew up watching the subways already, it was just something we grew up into. You know, you have different activities, you could get into drug-selling, you could get into robbing, or you had friends who would go rob stores, professional shoplifters; you found an outlet. For us, the outlet was the painting, which was still a crime, but by far the least dangerous of the crimes and with the least penalties. A lot of friends we grew up with were getting into much heavier, more serious shit, what saved us was the fact that we wanted to paint trains, we were artistically drawn to it, we were like, alright, we’re gonna go paint trains, we’re gonna steal, but we’re gonna steal paint, and markers and everything.
When you first started painting, did you start painting as TATS Cru, or did you find each other through painting?
Nicer: We all started painting on our own.
BIO: I started painting in junior high school, with BRIM and Base, then Matt came along. Then when I got to high school is when I met BG and Nicer, and they had already been doing it on their own.
BG183: Me, I was an artist before I became a graffiti artist, I used to draw black and white in the beginning…
VNA: And how has New York graffiti changed now, as a writer?
BG183: Now a lot of New York graffiti artists that have been writing for many years don’t focus a lot on the internet, so they figured that because they have mad fame here in New York, that people are gonna know who they are, but that’s not true, you definitely have to go online now. Back then you did everything on the subway and got fame in New York City, and now you, to continue having that fame, you need internet access, without that, you could be bombing here in New York and never be known, nobody’s gonna care. Somebody who just started in say 2000, could have more fame because he’s online. It’s hard, a lot of old graffiti artists don’t get props like they used to.
Obviously you guys have changed and adapted as artists too, it seems that you’ve switched your focus to the community?
Nicer: That just comes with doing so many projects and getting older and being more recognised, you know, you’re put into a different area you’re not really exposed to as a younger artist. As you get older, you start meeting with people, doing business, and there’s certain times when we’ll just do community murals because we have the paint and we have the time. Those are fun too, it’s not about us, you start to appreciate your neighbourhood or the borough you grew up in and do something for that.
Do you feel it’s your responsibility to give a little more back to the community?
BIO: Considering we wrote all over it? Probably so… (laughs) Probably so. It’s a pride thing too, were from the Bronx and you go to other cities and see all these elaborate murals, for instance, Philadelphia, and we say to ourselves, well, we live here, why not do some of that stuff ourselves. Obviously we do some of that stuff for us, but some of those times we do murals that are totally unrelated to anything we do. It’s that giving back mentality.
BG183: Thing is, we don’t get funded by any government or community money, so anything we do comes out of the TATS Cru funds. For us to do big murals it takes a lot.
VNA: How do you generate those resources?
Nicer: Most of the stuff we do is from our commercial work. A lot of people criticise the commercial side of what we do, but that’s what enables us to do what we do, the graffiti murals, the community murals. No-one’s funding us, everyone’s quick to comment, but nobody realises that some of these projects take a few thousand dollars. None of that stuff is free.
BG183: Some of these walls aren’t free also, we have to pay rent on the walls.
VNA: Obviously you guys got invited over to the UK for Inkie’s See No Evil a few years ago, do you find the name you have as TATS Cru carries a lot of weight abroad still?
Nicer: You have to consider the amount of time we’ve been in the game, all those years. There are other artists, so we may not be the hottest topic, because how long can you remain on top? We still matter in it because of the history, and we still produce, but obviously there’s new artists, like in music, there’s new hot artists. At some point you have to step back and let the new artists get their shine. That’s just the nature of the game.
VNA: So how do you stay fresh and ahead of the game?
Nicer: We’re always looking at what’s out there.
BIO: A lot of artists are the great ‘I am’ and say I did this and that and wanna sit back, just cos they did this thing 30 years ago, they think it entitles them to something. We don’t come at it with that mentality, we look at the new artists and see what they’re doing, and if you realise a lot of these new artists just taking old ideas and rehashing them, so we think if they can do it, we can do it.
BG183: Also, when we first started, as TAT, our mission was battling against each other, competing for who does the better letter, the better colour, even when we did trains back then, it’s called a married car, two names on a train, and they’d say, oh this guy burned you. For that reason, we’d always kept up in the game. At the same time, you’d always keep up with what other people were doing and you’d compete.
BIO: We look at what was out there and if the bar has been raised, then obviously you need to step up your game. You gotta keep up.
Nicer: Most importantly for us, it’s still learning and looking what’s going on out there, if you’re not thirsty and wanting to see what’s going on you miss out. We’re constantly looking at what the young fellas are doing and then we’re also looking at some of the old guys, but it’s that thirst for knowledge, it’s still exciting to us, I guess.
VNA: Yeah, you’ve got young kids like Aryz coming through…
Nicer: Yeah Aryz is a beast, 3 days he came through in Bristol, with a roller! At my age it’d take me longer… If I could even get up there!
BIO: You’ve definitely gotta give props where props is due. Some of these young kids are taking it to a level where we never imagined it would go. The skill level, the ability, some of the stuff that’s being produced, even for us, is up there. I mean, I don’t know if I want to be all that, but I want to try and stay up there at least.
Nicer: The point is, we’re still fans. That’s the cool part, if anything what makes us the people we are – cos we’re real guys at the end of the day, we’re just regular Joe’s who like to paint – but we still like to see what the other guys are doing and go ‘ooh, we’d like to do that’, it makes it exciting.
BIO: Don’t get it twisted, if we have to battle, there’s a strong chance you’re not gonna win. (laughs) But it’s still fun. I guess at the end of the day, if it’s not fun, that’s when we stop.