Painting The Town

"While Hunts Point residents seem to accept graffiti, graff artists still clash with law enforcement. When rapper Big Pun died in 2000, TATS CRU painted a wall in honor of the legendary Bronx singer. After finishing the wall, however, they were quietly arrested around the corner and away from the grievers to prevent inciting a riot, BG said. In the end, he said, it was the community’s outrage that hastened their release. With the community board protesting on one phone and the building owner revealing TATS CRU had obtained permission to paint on the other, police let them out the back-door."

Today we had a nice read over at The Uptown Chronicle from New York. The article "Painting the Town" report about the TATS Cru and Graffiti in New York City. Some quotes by BG, Nicer or south african Graffiti artist Motel7 who have painted with How and Nosm in Hunts Point lately. An random journalistic work but worth to read, jump

Painting the Town (by Ashlee Fairey)

Hunts Point Graffiti Artists Reach for Respect

A strong September sun beat down on the tar roof of 940 Garrison Avenue. Drops of diligence dripped down the faces of TATS CRU on Sept. 15 as they painted graffiti murals on approved wall space above The Point, a Hunts Point community arts center in the south Bronx.

Wilfredo “Bio” Feliciano, a founding member of TATS CRU, bent down to highlight his black and purple lettering: It read “Bio Nicer,” crediting the two spray-can artists working on the piece. In between the text stood Conad the Barbarian in black paint, wisps of hair veiling his hardened face.

TATS CRU is a graffiti group of Hunts Point locals, born and raised on the streets of South Bronx. Seen as neighborhood hoodlums in the past, they have now become graff art icons who transposed tagging from a local underground scene to an international artistic stage. While they have reached recognition from the art world, many graffiti artists still wander the wavering distinction between art and vandalism.

TATS CRU gained the critical acclaim they enjoy today in large part due to the Hunts Point community’s acceptance and support. Noticing the bright palette of the murals, mom-and-pop stores began commissioning the crew to decorate their store exterior walls in the late 1980s, CRU member BG183 said. A tropical mural picturing beaches and palm trees still decorates the outside of a local bodega on Simpson Street.

While TATS CRU painted a piece, locals would linger, watching the mural unfold. As the publicness of the painting dawned on observers, they began shouting out, Yo, throw my brother’s name up there. He died last week, BG recalled. And they did, first as a favor. But the requests continued and led to commissioned memorial walls – murals commemorating a person with a portrait, birthday and date of death, and words of remembrance.

One of their first memorial wall appeared in 1989 for Cowboy, an MC for the South Bronx-based hip-hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, BG remembered. They later painted a mural for a young man nicknamed Fat Joe on a building directly facing his mother’s house.

“It’s something people can pay their respects to,” BG said. “I work closely with the family to get the face right. It’s really deep for the family.” The poignancy resounded for the public as well. BG noted that memorial walls are hardly ever tagged over by other artists, out of respect.

Graffiti is an ever-changing art form for TATS CRU, constantly incorporating community issues and elements from everyday life in Hunts Point.

“I paint things that are part of current events,” said 42-year-old Hector “Nicer” Nazario. “Or I can be inspired in the supermarket by rows of cereal boxes.” The idea for Conad came to him while watching TV the night before. Other times he searches for mural material in the oil canvases of masters like Goya, Monet or American fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. “It’s a modern medium,” Nicer said of graff, what graffiti is often called nowadays, “but it’s still art-related.”

Graffiti was always art-related for Nicer, even as a young kid growing up on Longwood Ave. “I was always into art but there weren’t any art programs for kids. I used to trace comics books for fun.” He remembered seeing graffiti murals around the neighborhood and thinking, “Wow, that’s like a huge comic book.”

When Nicer learned two classmates in his high school art class were into tagging, or spray-painting their stylized initials around the area, the three teamed up in 1985 to form TATS CRU and took on their tag names: Bio, Nicer and BG183. They are now TATS CRU Inc., 10 professional muralists who work on commercial campaigns, public projects and lecture at universities nationwide.

While the three were always interested in art as kids, part of the attraction of tagging was building a local reputation. “You do it for fame, to let people know you’re out there,” Nicer explained. “You want the attention from your peers. You want to become a ghetto celebrity.” A sense of competition builds to see who can come up with the most creative tag, but also to see who can tag the most.

“The more we bombed the more we wanted to see our name,” BG183 says in a Soundwalk audio graffiti tour. “The more we saw our name the more we wanted to bomb. We wanted to get the fame, and the fame was the name.”

Yet the competitive tagging root of graffiti has tied its reputation to acts of vandalism, a reputation from which TATS CRU has worked to break free.

“Kids find some cans and start wilding out with friends, writing on tombstones,” Nicer said. “That’s called graffiti vandalism,” and has affixed a criminal connotation to the term graffiti. “That’s the biggest challenge to getting recognized as a serious art form.”

Public perception often “clumps us all in the same category,” Nicer said, but there seems to be a subtle distinction between acts of graffiti vandalism and mural art. Many mural artists now get permission from landlords before painting building walls, but the disparity lies not in the legal status but in the quality of work.

A graffiti artist takes time to develop his tag and explore new fonts and colors, Nicer said. While most graff artists start out by tagging, Nicer sees it as merely a stepping stone: “A professional runner has to jog first to get where they want to be,” he said, describing tagging as a journey to find your aesthetic style. Yet there are those who never participate in graffiti as an art form, he said.

Jason Castillo, or “Kid Platano,” also sees a distinction between tagging and graff art; he considered himself a tagger, not an artist. The 19-year-old high school student likes to bomb with markers around schools, parks and highly public places – “wherever my friends are,” he explained. “I like to show off my tag. I make it medium size but noticeable so people can see it.” As for colors, he uses whatever marker he happens to have in his backpack that day. He stays away from spray paint because marker is easier to work with and costs very little.

“Tags aren’t graffiti,” Castillo said. “Graffiti is about lettering, color, figures and objects. Graffiti is art to me, expressing your feelings through art and influencing others to draw what they’re thinking about. It takes time to learn what [graffiti artists] do.”

The fine line between graffiti vandalism and art is acknowledged by the art world as well. “There is definitely a difference between tagging and murals,” said Carolyn Landis, an art consultant based in New York City and Aspen.

“One is art, and the other has something to do with ego rather than art. A magic market tag is an act of abuse, but tags were the starting place of the whole [graffiti] culture. Ego is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists need to have a big ego to take criticism. If you have no ego, you’ll be defeated right away.”

As an emerging artist, Nicer used to prefer the phrase “aerosol artist” as opposed to “graffiti artist” to avoid negative associations, but now welcomes the name he tried to escape. Public perception has evolved, he said, and more and more people are acknowledging graffiti as art.

Graffiti began to receive attention from the art world in the 1980s when the work of iconic art figures – graffiti artists – like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat gained critical acclaim, Landis said. She recently commissioned for a client a work of art by Zyphyr, a renowned graffiti artist who was at the forefront of graffiti’s crossover from an underground urban scene to the mainstream art world.

Nicer distinctly remembered the moment he realized just how mainstream graffiti has become. The Smithsonian Museum of Art, one of the most prestigious art museums in the country, invited TATS CRU to Washington D.C. for their 35th Annual Folklife Festival in 2001. The museum custom-built walls for the group to paint on and installed them along the National Mall.

“What the f** am I doing here?” Nicer recalled thinking, gazing at the stretch of government buildings. “These people used to chase me.” Their work is now part of the Smithsonian’s vaulted art collection.

Many people outside the art-world, including community residents, accept graffiti murals as an aesthetic expression. “Most of it is art,” said Neo Gonzalez, 21, “except when they put their names up. That’s stupid. But the murals are nice. It’s something to do with the community that’s artistic and inspiring. Instead of gray walls they put up something nice.”

“I like it,” echoed Chuck Goldman, 50. “I grew up with it.”

TATS CRU has felt the strong encouragement of Hunts Point residents, and some graffiti artists from beyond the Bronx envy the strong presence of graffiti culture. Motel7 is a 21-year old female graffiti artist from South Africa who spent the past week in Hunts Point painting with TATS CRU.

“There’s a sense of a graffiti community here,” she said. “There are big crews here. In Cape Town there aren’t enough of us” to form groups. One reason for the sparseness of Cape Town graff artists in comparison to Hunts Point is the extreme danger of tagging in South Africa. Gang murders over graffiti territory are common, she said.

The South African public doesn’t view graffiti as art. Most pieces are painted predominantly in rough neighborhoods, and the general Cape Town population doesn’t see the actual work. “They just think it’s vandalism,” she said. People react with “death stares and yelling.” In Hunts Point, however, Motel7 found that “people here appreciate [graffiti art].”

While Hunts Point residents seem to accept graffiti, graff artists still clash with law enforcement. When rapper Big Pun died in 2000, TATS CRU painted a wall in honor of the legendary Bronx singer. After finishing the wall, however, they were quietly arrested around the corner and away from the grievers to prevent inciting a riot, BG said. In the end, he said, it was the community’s outrage that hastened their release. With the community board protesting on one phone and the building owner revealing TATS CRU had obtained permission to paint on the other, police let them out the back-door.

Washington Heights-based graffiti artist Dister, 30, told of being arrested three weeks ago while working on a public school mural project. He had a permission slip in his pocket and a teacher at his elbow, but still wound up in cuffs. He wasn’t sure why. “The New York City police don’t support the artists,” he said. “They look down on it.”

A transit police officer stationed in Hunts Point who wished to remain anonymous said he did not consider graffiti to be art. “When they paint a mural in one selected area with permission, that’s acceptable,” he said.

“When they tag up everything, it makes the neighborhood unappreciative. They’re very talented people, but I don’t understand why they don’t take it elsewhere. It’s a waste of talent.”

Link to Article: theuptownchronicle.com

Photo: HowNosm Flickr