I've taught The Art History of Graffiti and Street Art class every other semester or so since 2011 at City College. Every session we meet with a section of amazing artists. On July 10th we met with one of the longest running graffiti crews in the city who have turned their art into a living the amazing Tats Cru including Bio, Nicer and BG183. They gave us their history lesson as well as advice on how to protect your brand and your art. The class has been meeting with this trio since the beginning and year after year their explanations are so relevant and contemporary. This is what my students had to say about the visit.
Amy L. Young
Graff 101: TatsCru
Derek: Tats Cru were OG’s to the graffiti/street art community. During my visit I learned about the process of building up your name as a graffiti artist from an organic non-filtered perspective. I grasped the depths of history from their experiences, including the development of street art from a business standpoint. From vandalism to commissioning’s sounds like a surreal experience for the ethnic group. I could tell they were into street art more so because it was a passion for them, the money side of it was just a perk in utilizing their talents as means to provide. They have a platform to spread a mixed arrange of content, for both big-wig businesses and emotional tributes. This is what makes Tats Cru pioneers to the business and why they got to experience the luxury of travel for their work. It gives me a better understanding to what street art can represent and how powerful its content can take a person.
Reph: Tats Cru's story about meeting in school, painting the trains and eventually going legal is an epic one, that should probably be made into a movie. The story about BG not wanting to paint portraits of dead people [for RIP Memorial Walls] any more was very sad - heavy stuff. When asked about the commercialization of the culture they said “okay wow times have changed… can’t be mad at that… it became commercial, what are you going to do about it…” Unfortunately, I understand where they are coming from, and at times I feel resigned to accept it, what are we going to do about it, SMH, SMH.
Ruben: All three men were authentic to the core and it was evident that I was standing there listening to the stories dreams and visions of graffiti art royalty. They have now grown as a company to one of the most successful street art businesses. Bio stated, “I’m telling you when we say we have been through it all, we have, shoot outs, working till 4-5 in the morning, and man it gets wild after midnight.” The one thing that is so impressive is that with their now famous mark in the graffiti and street art world it is amazing that they are still Bronx based and work tirelessly to give back to their communities.
Badiallo: Meeting the graffiti crew that began train bombing, I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I should have expected three humorous regular guys from the Bronx because that’s exactly what they were - reminding me of a superhero team with each individual superhero that embraced their own personality. TatsCru stated that sometimes they stopped painting, looked at where they were and were surprised at what they have become. Nicer stated, “times have changed… cops used to chase us and now we are getting called to do murals.” However, with being three boys from New York City and having to make a living from their murals, they’ve encountered a lot of ups and downs and have learned how to maneuver in the art business. It was amazing to speak with three regular people from New York City who have made prodigies out of themselves through hard work. It is especially meaningful because train bombings are something I would have probably done.
Sean: It was really nice to meet artists that have seen it all, and been in the graffiti movement since the beginning, and have seen it evolve and change over time. One of my favorite moments was a piece of life advice from Nicer. He said “Business is a learning process, and you’re only gonna get what you ask for.” This is one of the tenets of life that I have been recently trying to adhere to, to always take chances, and have no regrets. I also resonated with BG’s quote “this game sounds easy, but it’s not easy, if you’re comfortable living at the low then you’ll be successful, because there’s a lot of lows to get to the highs.” Having such well known and successful artists be so open and responsive to our class and our questions was a really humbling experience.
Elias: I most enjoyed the quote Nicer gave, how they were accused of being connected to gang activity and “copied what ad or commercial agencies would do.” They took a template for memorial works and developed it with each client, learned what resonated with people that commissioned them and the rest of their audience. Traveling all over the globe for a multitude of projects, it’s a little heartwarming to hear from them that it’s basically the same community everywhere, same types of people trying to get by, and that they are trying to tap into that basic feeling. They’ve gotten so accepted that it startles them from time to time, specifically as the recount being on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and being protected by cops as they worked instead of instigated by them. So much has changed since they started, which is also why someone asked why they maintain such good chemistry with one another. “We fight a lot,” was the answer given without a breath of hesitation.
Faolan: These three guys are like your funny uncle who’s always cracking jokes at family parties. Their chemistry is unique and flows seamlessly as they interject each other and you truly get to see how they actually are. Once you get passed their comedic side, you actually get to see just how smart and creative these guys are. They came into the art business with no idea how to turn their talents into profit and figured it out on their own. Neighborhood locals would start off asking them to paint murals on their buildings and in return they would receive compensation. This helped them start to see an income from their craft and would help them learn how much their services were worth.
Natalie: When asked about how they felt about how easy it is now for street and graffiti artists, the crew embraced it which is something I respected immensely. Hearing from a group that has endured the test of time and change accept change and the way artists create work was something I really respected. Art is an ever changing world and people are so close minded to the idea of change. The crew has created a business out of their creative skills and have learnt the art of marketing and business. They learned the right way to discuss and communicate with store owners and landlords in order to break down the negative connotations of graffiti that the media puts out.
Mariah: Bio and Nicer spoke on how they “didn’t know how to be business men” at first and still don’t now but they gave excellent advice to the aspiring artists. My favorite, which I didn’t really think of, was “charge for creative freedom.” When a client asks you to do a mural and they have plans for it that is one charge but if they ask you to design it...charge for creative freedom. And when it’s intimidating Nicer said, “you only get in life what you ask for.”
Alexis: The meet up with Tats Cru was unlike the previous artists we have met so far. At the end of your meeting with Tats Cru they gave a lot of valuable business advice for artists who don’t want to be scammed by the art they produce. One of the things they mentioned was “if you say yes to everything you’ll never live.” This is point is important to recognize as artists because by default you want to say yes to things because you don’t know when else you are getting paid or you may be afraid to ask for too much but it's good to know that as an artist you are in control of your business with the ability to say yes or no.
Seth: Since the outset of this class I’ve been somewhat enthralled with early graffiti, as it seems that it was more organic and more raw; it seemed like the drive to write graffiti came from the idea that it was something which you needed to do, regardless of whether it was "cool" or not. Now it feels like there are a lot of people who write because it is perceived as cool or trendy and would just as easily put the can down if the trend were to fade. But, there are also a lot of kids out there who write because they need to and won’t ever stop, because they can’t. Anyway, Tats Cru, for all their success as muralists and after having worked with some of the biggest corporations in the world, seem like they are still extremely true to themselves. Hearing these guys talk about being working artists was somewhat comical, as I have never really seen a professional artist who looks and speaks like an Italian father from Long Island. Appearance and stereotypes aside, Nicer gave me perhaps some of the most sage advice I have ever heard in my life, “Being an artist is a world of highs and a world of lows, and if you can deal with living amongst the lows you’ll make it. Otherwise, go get a f*cking job.”
Ricky: It wasn’t an understatement when it was said, “TATS CRU truly knows it all." Understanding graffiti is learning a completely new language, and BIO, Nicer, and BG have not only mastered the language but learned the ability to teach it to others. Sometimes you don’t have to speak all you need is yourself, your medium, and your material of choice. With there work, what they do every day, is completely different from project to project, which keeps them excited everytime.