The TATS Cru: In their own words
“Please stand clear of the closing doors”. Beep. Boop. Fists clenched, paint crackling, subsisting around his knuckles. The clattering of the 2 train against the tracks became hushed and the doors of the New York Subway opened to reveal walls plastered in ink. This was the Grand Concourse station at 149th street, home of one of the fabled and most popular writer’s benches. Yeah you could go to the bench, you may survive, you may not. A few heads turned to face him, bodies shifted, sizing him up, was this guy a writer too? His fists clenched even harder. The guys sitting there were about four years older and their eyes were rightfully shifty. They were waiting for trains but had no intention of getting on any of them, they were waiting, waiting to see what had been done in the train yards last night or many nights before under a moon of silent defiance and awning of fame. Working quickly yet skillfully enough to not catch any drip, the only sounds that were audible were the occasional scuffing of sneakers on pavement, the jangling of the metal ball within aerosol cans as they were raised above heads and shaken, rousing the paint within to surface and a shushing from the cans themselves as they breathed misty colors onto the trains from top to bottom. This was what they lived for, described as an incomparable adrenaline rush, a drug of hues, reputation and shadow. This feeling kept them going and he was one of them.
The boy from the train is known as Bio. I didn’t ask what his “real” name was because as time ran its course, spanning over 30 years of painting, it wouldn’t matter. This “nickname”, “alter ego”, became who he is. He is Bio. His own mother even calls him that. Bio has burly shoulders, dark hair and a humble, yet gritty, barefaced edge which had been sharpened and hardened by the streets of New York before slumming hipsters and boozy brunch begot gentrification. Growing up in the Bronx, he was always surrounded by graffiti but it wasn’t until he saw a cartoon character on the outside of a running subway car that made him say, “ ‘oh shit, I want to do that’. He went back to his neighborhood and started asking everyone like, “ ‘yo I saw some stuff on the train, you know what that is?’
They were like, ‘oh, that’s graffiti’.
And I was like ‘graffiti…?’
They’re like, ‘yeah you gotta get a name, and you gotta get up’.”
Those who “get up” never called themselves “graffiti artists”. The term graffiti has Italian roots, “graffio” which means to scratch. Since the Stone Age, humans have been leaving their marks on everything from the walls of caves to palaces in Sri Lanka. From the moment Bio laid eyes on that train he was sucked into a world of its own.
The city was transformed into a wide-walled canvas, fire escapes were obscure invitations and barbed-wire fences were triple dog dares. Moving from middle school to high-school, Bio met the likes of BG183, Nicer, Ken, Sim, Rash, Mack and Brim, all of whom together would form what would be known today as the TATS Cru, coming up in the early 80s, bombing the 2, 4, 5 and 6 trains. Yet the story of the TATS Cru doesn’t just end with these guys disbanding and getting “real jobs”. True legends are not static. They are timeless and they write their own histories. Their story is about transition, from the streets to having their work show up on bottles of Ciroc. They get paid to paint. Here we can understand that what seems like a paradox is merely evolution.
Sitting upstairs in what is now the TATS Cru office (known as “The Point”) in the Bronx, a framed Fat Joe record hangs on the wall amongst plastic figurines, model cars and an unopened bottle of “Graffi-tea”. Bio leans back in his chair, his elbows are propped on either sides of the arm rests bringing his index fingers together before speaking to me. “At the time we were younger, we really didn’t have jobs so it was kind of like a free for all for us. We were living wild, we’d spend our days racking paint and our nights and weekends painting subways and there was nothing else that really mattered.”
There are relics of this lifestyle that surfaced as I walked around the place; photos, beer and a train car. Yeah, I said train car. Nicer, whose white shirt had traces of paint and brown hair which sat naturally tousled around his face, stuck his tongue out with his hands on hips in front of that train, casually, as I snapped a photo. It is a full size model of what ran through the boroughs back in the 80s and for a while they forgot they even had it. How? It was on top of their roof and one day, a guy who was supposed to do a tar job was up there and told them that he couldn't do the job. They asked why. His response was, “because you guys have a fucking train up there!” They were like, “OH YEAAAAH!” Ever since then the train was brought down to be painted as they brought in old friends and new ones, to take part or witness this almost religious act.
Cole and I had the privilege of shooting BG183 and Pase One Bt paint that train in a style war of its own making. BG wears his Yankees hat low right over his eye brows and had a respirator mask over his nose and mouth, a TATS Cru chain hung from his neck, the gold popped against the contrast of his black shirt. All that was visible were his dark eyes. He tells me more about the lives they all used to lead before “real life kicked in” as Bio called it. They’d drive to Philly on racking missions because there were only "x" amount of places to get paint in the city before things got “hot”. After filling up 2-3 bags with stolen paint there sometimes was an empty seat in the car on the way back. Some people got greedy, being greedy got you caught. They’d spend around six hours painting in the ghost yards, which explains why the cru had so many top-to-bottoms running through the six. “I did it because it was like another thing to do at night instead of going home and doing nothing”, BG began to tell me, spraycan in hand. “There really was no playstation, no games, the only other thing you could’ve done was dj— or if you was dancing, you were practicing in front of the mirror. I was doing all that for a while because it was all part of my community but the only thing that caught my eye and that I really loved was the art of graffiti. When I saw graffiti, I saw colors,” he said. For him it was never about the fame, it was about the art, precision, technique—which begins to explain the name, TATS, Top Artistic Talents. “When the cru started we was a picky cru. We wanted the best. Before we hit the trains we would go to somebody’s house and do whatever we needed, the planning. Nothing never really changed,” BG said taking of his respirator for second, talking animatedly with his hands. Behind him lay a freshly painted train car with "BG183" seemingly raging towards us in yellows splashed with red, lavenders, dots, stars and aquas that bore the trademark of what New York has always brought to the world of graffiti: style.
But things did change. They had to in order for them to stay the same. Change manifested in bills, jobs and girlfriends. It is as if you have an expiration date. It is a part of an incalculable cycle. “You can’t be in your prime in this forever, so you peak, fade out, come back”, Bio said.
Fast-forward to the early 90s, the cru was still painting outside, working some hollowed out job and then painting a few mom and pop stores at night for commission. “Then at one point we decided like either we gotta give up the night shift, ‘cause we’re painting till two, three, four in the morning and getting up at like five or six to go to work. Work all day and then get back out to paint. So it was either we quit the job or quit painting so we were like let’s give it a shot and pursue the painting full time.” Change.
Running alongside all this, with the New York state crackdown and declaration of “war” against graffiti with the inauguration of Mayor Lindsay andthe “broken windows” campaign, bombing trains became more and more of a nefarious act. Down the line, the MTA would not allow painted subway cars to leave the yard. The retribution for painting trains no longer existed, you could throw down a hot piece of work but if no one saw it, did it even matter? Fortunately or unfortunately for the state of New York this only brought graffiti out from the underground and onto the streets. The year was ’87 when the Cru began to turn away from the trains and began to leave their mark on your walls and mine. Now there were faces bound to what began to appear on the walls, whereas when they were painting trains, it was as if the colors, lines and characters were ghosted. “People would see us and start to recognize us and then they’d be like, ‘hey, the guy from the store wants to talk to you and commission you to do something on the side of his wall’. ‘Cause whenever we would paint it would stay untouched, it’d be colorful and nobody would tag on it. So we stumbled into that side of making money like that”, said Bio. Yet even though the money presented itself, this didn’t make the transition easier for any members of the cru. It was a foreign to them, it was the ‘90s.
The '90s...Walking down the aisles of a store, different spray cans were arranged by color and brand along the walls. BG recalls a booming heart in his chest as he clenched and unclenched his jaw while looking at the curated spoil. “You start looking around like you’re gonna steal but you have the money to pay for it because you’re doing a job so you really had to say to yourself, ‘what am I gonna do? Get caught stealing and not do the job?’”, BG said remembering the beginnings of the next chapter titled: Business.
No one before them had really wandered down this path per say, so they had no one’s example to follow. They wouldn’t leave their contact information or names on the walls they did initially and advice came in all grades of quality. BG tells me that someone tried to tell them to not go with their graffiti names and to change it. “He was like, ‘if you go to a Jewish company, if you go to an American company they’re going to look at your name and they’re going to say who the hell are these guys? You guys have to go with your real names on your business card and that’ll work’. But we always believed in what we’ve always been doing, we said forget about it, we’ll keep it. But he had us really thinking,” BG said, his eyes glancing back to the train car in their yard. My eyes never left his chain.
Change. With the rise of hip-hop and street culture during this new era, companies themselves began to incorporate and hire “artists” to design for them who knew nothing of graffiti and from what, who and where it came from. Change was already happening, with or without them. “We said we might as well jump in there and take some ownership and try to at least maintain some of the integrity of the art form. But then you get a lot of mixed reactions from people who say you’re selling out; but you either sell out or you’re gonna let somebody take what you’ve lived your whole life doing and make money from it and then you go to work for someone else and be like ‘fuck I could do better shit than that’, ” Bio said.
Ironically on the desk about a foot away from Bio was an old De la Vega quote in red ink sitting in a black frame it read, “the thought of money is potentially more destructive than money itself”. Today artists proclaim themselves to be “street artists”, who “keep it real” yet are cuddled and paid by galleries who kiss their asses. “I mean back then, it was never a question of money,” Bio said with a tinge of loathing in his voice. “You were painting just for the sole purpose of painting. All you wanted was your name up. You wanted to stand out amongst your peers even though that’s your entire world, in the sense of society, that’s a small group but you were important in that circle. Didn’t matter if you were fucking dead broke, you could be king of the line even if you didn’t have two nickels.” This was what I wanted to hear.
So the Cru went from being a bunch of intimidated 14 year olds afraid to get off of the train at 149th street to notoriously bombing trains to now, playing their role as the “Mural Kings”. They have been commissioned for all kinds of projects from memorial walls to representing New York at the Smithsonian Institution’s 35th annual Folklife Festival. “We never stopped, we believed, we do and we conquer. We make sure that even when we get $100 to do a project it’s worth $8,000”, BG said. He’d been painting for four hours straight and though the piece looked done, he wasn’t.
Walking around the block at The Point there were so many murals done by the Cru over the years. Murals for Nas, murals for someone who died, an I <3 THE BRONX mural and one about police brutality and what to do under certain circumstances. The question of who art is for always arises. Graffiti and the Cru answer back, art is for the artist. Even though the Cru has been hired around the world to paint Bio told me that, “at the end of the day, it’s always gonna be about the fact that we’re gonna paint whatever we want to paint. The fact that people enjoy what we do, that’s cool, but when it’s all said and done, whether you like it or not, we don’t care. We can’t let what’s happening outside affect what we want to do because then we’re not sticking true to who we are”, Bio told me before I left The Point for what would be foreseeably or unforeseeably, the last time.
Yet, three months after leaving New York my Metrocard still remains in my wallet and history is still writing itself.
Written by Lindsey Okubo | Fall 2015