Art / Culture

Graffiti gurus’ legend grows

Bianca Silva

Hector “Nicer” Nazario at work in Tats Cru’s studio.

Bronx Museum to honor Tats Cru at spring gala

When the three artists who comprise Tats Cru began making their mark on the streets and subways of the Bronx in the 1980s, winning achievement awards was the last thing on their minds. At the time, they were focused on adding color to their home streets and attracting the attention of their peers.

But times have changed since the trio’s early days adding character to bland walls across the borough and evading the police in the process. On March 2, The Bronx Museum of the Arts will honor Tats Cru at its Spring Gala & Auction: Celebrating Education, hailing their importance as one of the world’s preeminent graffiti arts collectives.

“It was all about the work that you put in,” said Hector Nazario, otherwise known by his artist monicker Nicer, recalling the years before graffiti became a cultural commodity. “It was all about getting the fame amongst other graffiti artists. We only really did it for the attention of other graffiti artists. You didn’t care about the average Joe.”

“I think it’s something that’s a beginning.” said fellow artist Sotero Ortiz, who goes by the sobriquet BG 183.

BG183, Nicer and Wilfred “Bio” Feliciano met as schoolmates at James Monroe High School in Soundview in the ’80s and have been working together ever since.  Back then, graffiti painters referred to themselves as writers.

“Graffiti is just a name that the government attached to the stuff that you see,” said BG 183.

Tats Cru’s passion for their work, and their eagerness to popularize graffiti as an art form, has led them to serve as de facto ambassadors of the craft around the world. In addition to traveling the world to work with other artists, they have produced pieces for companies like Coca-Cola, collaborated with recording artists like Fat Joe and Missy Elliot, and toured the UK with famed hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.

The group’s pieces are visible on the walls and entrances of businesses around the borough, but their repurposing of colorless surfaces across the borough has not always been so enthusiastically welcomed. They still remember regularly risking arrest for vandalism while seeking out walls to paint before graffiti became hip.

“We had to show either a written consent from the landlord or have them reach out to the landlord,” said Bio. “Even sometimes with permission, cops would be like ‘I don’t care. I’m gonna go around the block. When I come back, you better not be here. ‘ We pack up, wait for him to leave, wait a little while and come back and finish.”

Nowadays it’s common to see tourists from around the globe visiting their small studio at The Point, many of them fellow artists who come to paint with them. On a recent weekday, a graffiti artist named Neil, who had flown from Italy, helped paint a piece that resembled a 1980s subway car in the back of their studio.

“It’s a very positive experience,” he said. “I think the guys are one of the best crews at the moment when it comes to murals, big pieces.”

As graffiti art has evolved in complexity, attitudes towards it have similarly evolved. The Bronx Museum has long recognized Tats Cru’s importance in the local creative scene, said Sergio Bessa, director of education programs at the museum. In 2009 the museum commissioned the artists to paint a mural for the centennial of the Grand Concourse.

“We feel proud of the borough’s legacy as the cradle of hip-hop and the graffiti explosion,” Bessa wrote in an email, adding the museum has also “followed the development of many other graffiti artists.” In 2012 the museum sponsored respected graffiti artist Daze for a trip to Quito, Ecuador to work with local young people in the role of cultural ambassador.

Alison Chernow, the museum’s director of external affairs, says proceeds from the March 2 gala will go toward tuition for young people to learn digital media and other skills.

“It can be potentially life-changing,” said Chernow. “They learn workplace and life skills when they come here. These aren’t really offered in school at all, especially art programs.”

Tats Cru’s rise from mavericks to mainstream doesn’t change who they are at all, Bio insists. Their goal remains the same—to make art and to mentor young, aspiring artists who may carry the torch.

“We’re now meeting principals, CEO’s of companies who grew up watching this and understanding it, and respecting it as an art,” he said. But, he added, “Whether we got this award from the Bronx Museum or not, it doesn’t change who we are. It doesn’t make or break us at this point.”

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