With the explosion of hip-hop over the past ten years has inevitably come the corporate worldâ€™s adoption, sponsorship, and straight up pimping of the culture. Rap music is the most prominent example, but artists from all four elements are consistently being commissioned to add a bit of urban flavor to otherwise tasteless ad campaigns and marketing initiatives. Internationally renowned not only in the graffiti community, TATS Cru are arguably the most recognized street muralists painting today. Bombing since the early 70s, and incorporated since the 90s, TATS is the graffiti mural company, from the heart of graffiti, New York City. Now comprised of six members, BG, BIO, HOW, NICER, NOSM, and SEN2, TATS released a DVD in 2006 entitled The Mural Kings. Format had the chance speak with NICER and discuss coming up in NYC, bombing, territory, and why TATS deserve the title of Mural Kings.
“Even once people started having gallery shows and stuff like that, there were a few incidents where we went and took care of train beefs inside of these prestigious galleries or theatres.”
Format: On the DVD, TATS Cru – The Mural Kings, itâ€™s mentioned that your strongest point was in the 1980s when the crew was still TAT. Why is it that the crew was so strong at that point?
NICER: Just because of the amount of stuff that was being painted back then. Everything was do what you want and represent yourself how you want to â€“ thatâ€™s what graf has always been about, anyways. In the `80s, not only was there a fun element attached to it, but there was also the whole idea that there was no limitations, it was about what you can get over with. That was our strongest point, because it was just about getting our shit out there. As far as a crew united, we were tightest then just, because of the drive that everyone had. I mean everyone was united, fresh in the crew. It was just like a hunger.
Format: The Mural Kings DVD mentions that TATS once had 25 to 30 members. What happened to the other original members of the crew?
NICER: Again, you got to look at the timeframe. When we were out there painting in the `80s we varied in age from young teenagers, like 13, 14-years-old, which I was probably the youngest, to like 18-year-olds. Just like anything else, you grow up and you move on. Some guys have children at an early age, some guys get caught up into drugs, some guys go to school. Everyone takes their own route. The only three that really kept at it, constantly, have always been me, BIO and BG, because we grew up around each other and we knew each other for so long that we couldnâ€™t get away from each other. Trust me, I tried, I tried more than one time, they always caught me.
“You know how some guys have the bowling nights out, or some guys get together with their friends to play softball on Sundays? This was our softball games, but we were painting walls.”
Format: What is it about the core members who remain that kept you together?
NICER: Donâ€™t get me wrong there were plenty of times where we found ourselves like, â€˜Oh shit, did we make the right decision,â€™ or should we have listened to everyone when they said, â€˜Thereâ€™s no future in this,â€™ or â€˜Thereâ€™s no way youâ€™re gonna make a living off of this!â€™ Itâ€™s been hard and itâ€™s not something like, â€˜Iâ€™m going to stick to my guns and I know itâ€™s gonna pay off.â€™ I guess determination or stubbornness, I donâ€™t know which one is stronger, but I know those are the two reasons weâ€™re still doing what weâ€™re doing.
Format: TATS was one of the most hated crews in NYC in the `80s. What was that all about?
NICER: Well, hereâ€™s the mindset of what a true graffiti artist or graffiti crew is all about. Not only do you designate an area where you constantly paint, but once you claim a spot itâ€™s sort of like you have to create a reputation where if another crew was to come through, you had to do anything in your means to keep everyone out. There was that element to it, plus on top of it you had to keep in mind itâ€™s a street art form, so you could get robbed, or youâ€™re going to rob somebody for their spray paint and beat them down, and chase them out of the yard, and theyâ€™re not going to go running to a cop, and tell them, â€˜Oh those guys over there just jumped me and took my spray paint, can you do something?â€™ `Cause most likely if you got robbed itâ€™s `cause you was doing something illegal, also.
Even if you ask a lot of the old school heads from the `80s whoâ€™s the most hated, TATS crew definitely gets mentioned up there. A lot of it had not only do to with the beatings that we threw a lot of people, but I guess the majority of it was us being such a close tight unit that we didnâ€™t really fuck with too many outsiders or let other writers come hang or paint in the spots that we were painting in. For us, it was a big part of keeping respect. Even once people started having gallery shows and stuff like that, there were a few incidents where we went and took care of train beefs inside of these prestigious galleries or theaters.
“Then the harsh realties hit, like itâ€™s not just sitting around on the corner waiting for someone to come say, â€˜Hey you the guys that pain?â€™ Really we had to do street hustling, we had to go door to door, knocking on every business gate.”
Format: Talk a bit about how you linked up with Fat Joe and TS. How did that change your movement?
NICER: Actually, BRIM was one of the first people to meet him and we always just knew him as like a bum. We did a little bit of everything. Some of the guys just liked doing street bombing, other guys just liked doing the insides of trains and then you had guys who just liked to do throw-ups on the outside. The majority of the crew only liked to do pieces or productions on trains. Everyone got down with that. BRIM was one, who in the early `90s, was doing a lot of street bombing, so he hooked up with Joe, `cause Joe was bombing and he used to write CRACK â€“ I mean we knew him as CRACK from TS. We didnâ€™t know him as Fat Joe or Joe Tha Gangsta. One time we was out bombing and heâ€™s like, â€œYeah Iâ€™m gonna go to the studio, yeah Iâ€™m gonna go paint,â€ and we were like, â€œStudio, get the fuck outta here, yeah right nigga, you ainâ€™t doing no record,â€ and low and behold, like a year later there was Joe dropping an album.
Thatâ€™s when he came at us and was like, â€œYo, thereâ€™s money thatâ€™s given to the artists to do promotions, and so instead me doing like an ad in the Source, Iâ€™d rather spend the money and buy mad stickers.â€ We just bombed the city with the stickers. We looked at it as instead of bombing and putting your own name up, we were still bombing, but we were putting the stickers for the album up. Then it turned into like little competitions to see who could get the best spot. So I guess in a way, we sort of started all that album promoting and street promotion shit `cause no one was out there doing it. Realistically, no lie, no one was doing any album promoting through stickers that large and it was Joe who was the first one to do it. After him everyone else followed â€“ Jay-Z, Nas, because it made sense. `Cause really, whoever was getting caught out of the crew, back then, putting stickers was considered graffiti and it was a misdemeanor, you wouldnâ€™t even do anytime in jail. It was just like you get arrested, you get a ticket and get sent right home. And nine times out of ten, you came outside the precinct, beeped one of the guys on their beepers and weâ€™d come by and pick you up and keep bombing.
So thatâ€™s how we knew Joe, we always knew him through graffiti as an ink bum. We were all considered ink bums, thatâ€™s what you called other graffiti writers that went bombing. We called each other ink bums, because you can always tell a graffiti writer who likes to tag, because heâ€™ll always have ink on his hands or some article of clothing will have drops of ink on it. It wasnâ€™t like the fly fresh b-boy who was always super clean, you could tell a graffiti b-boy, because heâ€™d always have dots of ink somewhere.
“One time we was out bombing and heâ€™s like â€˜Yeah Iâ€™m gonna go to the studio, yeah Iâ€™m gonna go paintâ€™ and we were like, â€˜Studio, get the fuck outta here, yeah right nigga, you ainâ€™t doing no record,â€™ and low and behold like a year later there was Joe dropping an album.”
Format: How did you make the transition from bombing to painting murals?
NICER: Shit that was something that wasnâ€™t even planned out, it was just something that evolved by itself. We found ourselves in the early `90s painting little things here and there just keep hold of each other and our youth. When we were painting trains in the `80s we were teenagers, now in the `90s we were young adults so we had to get jobs and stuff like that, so weâ€™d still get together on the weekends to do stuff in our local neighborhoods, just to make sure we still had it or just to hang out with the boys, or get away from the wives. You know how some guys have the bowling nights out, or some guys get together with their friends to play softball on Sundays â€“ this was our softball games, but we were painting walls.
Being underground, all of sudden weâ€™re painting in the street where people are actually able to walk up to you and talk to you, you didnâ€™t have to hide in obscurity, so now that we were accessible to people, people were walking up to us and asking us, â€œCan you paint my store, or can you guys do this on my wall?â€™ They keep writing on my wall, Iâ€™d like to do a sign on my wall. Even though we all had jobs weâ€™d still get together and do these little jobs on the side. We werenâ€™t really doing it for the cash so much; we were just doing it to have an excuse to paint something. One job led to another and that one led to another, and that one led to another and we got to the point where we were scheduling weeks in advance. We had the idea, imagine if we could do this full-time, because we were just doing it on Saturdays and we were making pretty good dough on the side. I was the first one to leave my job `cause you ainâ€™t have to push me twice, then BIO came along second and BG still stood with his nine-to-five, 40 hour week job. I was adventurous, I was like, fuck it Iâ€™ll give it a try and then the harsh realties hit, like itâ€™s not just sitting around on the corner waiting for someone to come say, â€˜Hey, you the guys that paint?â€™ Really we had to do street hustling, we had to go door to door, knocking on every business gate, talking to people, offering stuff, bargaining with them and then weâ€™d hookup with BG when he got out of work, and be like all right this is what happened today, â€˜We got this potential, this is a potential, these guys want sketches before they commit, these guys wanna do it but they wanna do it for real cheap.â€ And thatâ€™s how we started.
We started working out of our little cars. And I guess one of the first investments we had was, BG found in some yard near where he used to work at, an old beat up `87, `88, Ford Bronco like the one OJ Simpson was getting away in. It was fucked up! It had like two broken tires, and it wouldnâ€™t start, it needed a battery, so the guy sold it to BG for $400. And that was it, we paid for it from the first two jobs we got, we fixed it up, we got tires, got batteries, did a tune-up, did all the electrical â€“ we spent probably a grand getting it going just rolling. Then we insured it and thatâ€™s it. That was our rolling office. We did everything out of that fucking jeep. And thatâ€™s kind of like how the company first started.
Format: How did TATS go from a start-up company to getting larger companies, to commission work and make that next little jump?
NICER: Being introduced from people to people and like early on in the `80s there was a lot of memorial walls we were doing here in New York City, and a friend of ours who did that book Subway Art, Martha Cooper, she was putting a book together entitled R.I.P. New York City, so we were one of the featured artists in that book. We did the book cover, we did a lot of stuff that was in the book. So it was at her book release party that we met CHICO from the Lower East Side and CHICO was doing some stuff for Coca Cola at the time. It was an art contest Coca Cola was doing here in New York City called Paint the Town Red. The project went like this: it was an art contest for high school students, the high schools would pick three winners and each of the winners would get their work replicated on a wall, aside from all the other stuff they would win as far as like the money that would go towards the scholarship and whatever different prizes were that year.
So CHICO was being hired to go replicate the kids artwork in different neighborhoods, but CHICO being CHICO, he wouldnâ€™t want to leave the Lower East Side, so when we met him he was like, â€˜Yo, you guys paint all over,â€ and we were like, â€˜We go anywhere and everywhere,â€™ and he was like, â€˜Yo I gotta hook you up with these people, they wanna do some murals for this art contest but they wanna do it in other boroughs and I donâ€™t really got walls in other boroughs.â€™ So he kind of set up the first initial meeting with the ad agency that was in charge of the art project and that was kind of like the introduction to the first big business that we started doing with these larger companies through these ad companies. And thatâ€™s when we had the life lesson that youâ€™re gonna get checks under your name and at the end of the year youâ€™re gonna have to pay taxes on it. So thatâ€™s how we learnt that lesson, we were like â€˜Oh shit I gotta pay taxes!â€™
The following year we were like, â€˜Yo instead of doing a check in your name and a check in your name, and a check in your name, letâ€™s do something where we can protect ourselves legally.â€™ So we started looking into what were our options. Around that time we were always beefing about these ad agencies using graffiti to sell products, but they wouldnâ€™t use real graffiti artists, and so instead of complaining all the time like they donâ€™t use real writers, why donâ€™t they use real writers â€“ we came to the realization that they donâ€™t use real writers, because they canâ€™t find real writers. So letâ€™s create a company where if you want the legitimate graffiti from a legitimate graffiti artist, letâ€™s create a source where they can go to and they can find one easily. We incorporated TATS Cru and that was the beginning of it. One of the first things I was open on doing was getting a listing in the phone book to make sure you can pickup 411 information here in New York and say our name and theyâ€™ll give you a phone number. Our focus was not to be obscure anymore, but to be out in the open.
â€œAnd I guess one of the first investments we had was, BG found in some yard near where he used to work at, an old beat up `87, `88, Ford Bronco like the one OJ Simpson was getting away in.â€
Format: TATS has been commissioned to do lots of memorial walls. How did that begin and how is it different than painting other murals?
NICER: Yeah, thereâ€™s a whole different mindset to that. Like when you do a memorial wall, itâ€™s a delicate situation first of all â€“ youâ€™re dealing with the death of a loved one. If you look at the walls, we used to get a lot of flack at the beginning where theyâ€™d say every memorial wall was for a drug dealer or a gangster and that wasnâ€™t the facts. We did walls for kids that were three-year-olds and we did walls for women that were 60-years-old. How much gang banging were they really doing?
We would do lectures in different colleges showing slideshows and explaining where weâ€™re from and what the mentality of the urban youth in our community was like, and why there was a need for these memorial walls, and what was the origins. Whether your from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, whatever, Caribbean â€“ when someone would die in the family they would set out by the roadside these makeshift memorials of like flowers or crosses just indicating to the neighbors that someone had passed within the household so other neighbors would come and give their condolences or bring food, you know depending on the culture, depending on where it is, there were different folklores that would go along with it.
What ended up happening was, a lot of that stuff was brought over with these families when they came to the United States. When they got here, me being from a Puerto Rican ancestry, whenever someone would die in my building or in my family they would put out flowers in front of the building, like over the doorway just to mark that there was a passing, that a loved one passed away in the building. So for a lot of the kids that were born here in the United States and grew up watching that as children and knowing about graffiti, and knowing about artists and what was going on in the neighborhood. These were the people who were reaching out to us to do memorials on their blocks commemorating some of the people who had passed away that they loved, whether it was family members or friends. So we always say these arenâ€™t movie stars, they arenâ€™t rock stars, they arenâ€™t famous rappers, these are just regular everyday normal people who just had enough people loving them and wanting to remember them that they would commission guys like us to do memorial walls. It was kind of an ill movement back then.
“And when he let it out of the hat, the shit dropped down like a mop and then Pun started turning his head like a helicopter back and forth, that shit was the funniest thing there was. BRIM goes, â€˜Look itâ€™s a blimp helicopter.â€™”
Format: TATS were arrested after painting one of the Big Pun memorial walls. What was that experience like?
NICER: Well first of all, that was one of my many times being arrested, none of them were fun, but it was kind of strange to be part of. First of all, we knew Pun through Joe, and the minute we met Pun it was just open arms because we knew him before any money. First of all, to know us you have to put up with a lot of snapping, being that we work in the streets, we learn to deal with the different people in every community. And every community has the same kinds of characters. Every community has like the nosy old lady, the group of guys that come over and like to snap, so weâ€™re constantly dealing with all types of personalities. But Pun was the type of guy that loved to joke around. When we met him he was this real big fat guy that was wearing this hat. Fat Joe had a clothing store on Melrose Avenue so we walked in and there was Pun. He was snapping with BRIM and BRIM was snapping back. We went in and started laughing at what they were saying to each other. So BRIM tells Pun, â€˜Yo take your hat off, show these niggas your hair,â€™ and underneath this Yankee baseball hat, when he removed his hat, was the worldâ€™s biggest mop of hair. If you look from his eyebrow level going all the way around, like if it was a fade, it was completely shaved, but from his eyebrows up, like going around his head was this huge long fucking mane of hair. And when he let it out of the hat, the shit dropped down like a mop and then Pun started turning his head like a helicopter back and forth, that shit was the funniest thing there was. BRIM goes, â€˜Look itâ€™s a blimp helicopterâ€™ and it started us snapping, so thatâ€™s how we knew him. He was just a fun loving guy who loved to snap and enjoy life. You couldnâ€™t run into him without having a good laugh.
We were in the middle of doing a campaign for him and what ended up happening was we got a call from someone saying, â€˜Yo is it true that he passed away?â€™ and we were like, â€˜Nah I donâ€™t know what youâ€™re talking about.â€ So then we got a few calls. We called Joe and we got through to his wife, and she said that Pun died that afternoon. So we hung up and we were already dressed and ready to go out that evening and go do one of the walls for his second album, so we were like you know what, weâ€™re known as the guys who do memorial walls for people in the community, if anyone deserves a wall, letâ€™s do it for Pun.
“We used to get a lot of flack at the beginning where theyâ€™d say every memorial wall was for a drug dealer or a gangster and that wasnâ€™t the facts. We did walls for kids that were three-year-olds and we did walls for women that were 60-years-old. How much gang banging were they really doing?”
Format: What entitles TATS to the rank Mural Kings?
NICER: One of the reasons why we call ourselves the Mural Kings and are still animate about it is, because so many crews have come and gone through the `80s, and if you look at their track record or time frame of how long theyâ€™ve painted you got to keep in mind weâ€™ve been doing this 26 years straight and never stopped painting. We may have done one wall a week or one wall every two weeks. Weâ€™ve done a lot of stuff that people donâ€™t know weâ€™re actually the ones that are behind it. Weâ€™ve done murals in hospitals and childrenâ€™s aid. Weâ€™ve done anti-war stuff, to orphan children, to aids and it goes on and on and on. Thereâ€™s almost nothing we wonâ€™t paint. Itâ€™s just because of the body of the work, everything from the smallest to the biggest. For us it isnâ€™t the size, itâ€™s more how many.
More Info: http://www.tatscru.com/