UP6: Exploring the History of Hip-Hop & The Bronx with Tats Cru

Written by Christine DeFazio

This Story is featured in UP’s yearly print – Issue 6: Graffiti. Order a copy here to see it in print alongside stories on 1UP Crew, Martha Cooper, PichiAvo, Danny Cortes, and more!

I joined renowned graffiti crew Tats Cru on an unusually warm February afternoon as they sprayed a memorial for Blanco on a wall at Park 52 in the South Bronx. As I approached, I saw BG183 straddling a pair of ladders, working on the portrait, spraying alongside BIO and NICER. BIO came out to greet me and told me that Blanco was a relative of White Boy John, whose memorial wall they had painted nearly twenty years ago. BG183 shared some empanadas with me from a local restaurant as we chatted. Family and friends gathered, supplying the artists with dates and information, hip-hop played and the group sipped Coronas, in honor of Blanco. Tats Cru began the mural around 11 am and continued under the light of a single park lamp as the sun set.

Tats Cru, The Mural Kings, are among the most prolific graffiti artists of the South Bronx, their murals visible from Mott Haven to Soundview. They began spraying trains as teenagers, transitioned to painting on walls, and remain prolific today, running an internationally renowned business and having worked with corporations such as Coca-Cola and SONY. Bio, BG183, Nicer, Brim, and Mack founded TAT, with Bio, BG183 and Nicer continuing to work as Tats Cru today. Numerous other writers have worked as part of the crew over the years, including Fat Joe, Goldie, HOW, NOSM and TOTEM. Tats Cru has collaborated with Crash, Daze, Andaluz the Artist, among others.

Art by NICER of Tats Cru

The artists grew up in the Bronx during the 1970s, an era coined “the Bronx is Burning” when an aerial camera zoomed in on a large fire in an abandoned building nearby during a broadcast of the second game of the Yankees-Dodgers World Series. The South Bronx became synonymous with the urban decay documented in photographs of burning buildings and the resulting rubble. BG183 grew up in one of the four remaining buildings on Simpson Street, where Fort Apache the Bronx was filmed, watching the fires outside of his own window wondering if his home would be next: “I grew up with abandonment and burning… It was dangerous… I would see light coming in [the windows]. I saw fires. There were big ones on 163rd, Simpson and Fox. [At] the biggest fire, firemen died. Families had to move.” Despite these hardships, the artists describe growing up in close knit, supportive Puerto Rican communities.

Tats Cru’s community murals preserve the culture and history of the Bronx

Tats Cru’s community murals preserve the culture and history of the Bronx. For I Love the Bronx, each of the letters depicts a characteristic of the Bronx with the heart painted in Bio’s trademark style. Pastimes such as children playing stickball and jump rope, dominoes, drumming, hip-hop, an ICEE seller, and the elevated trains turning the corner in a display of skill are shown alongside well-known locations such as the Bronx Botanical Garden, Bronx Zoo, and Yankee Stadium. Tats Cru painted two other versions of I Love the Bronx, including one in Hunt’s Point, where their studio is located. “We were brainstorming large letters with famous places in the Bronx. Things that would be cool for people on Simpson,” BG said.

Art by BG183 of Tats Cru

The marginalization and oppression of black and Hispanic youth in turn led to a sense of identity and belonging through the formation of graffiti crews. Mack noted, “It was us against the world,” about the crews formed for camaraderie, protection, and watching each other’s backs in the yards. Nicer agreed “…You’re doing something illegal and there’s strength in numbers.” Lee Quinones, SEEN, Duster, Zephyr, Blade and Comet, sprayed the elevated 2, 5, and 6 trains that traveled through the Bronx during the late 1970s. A community of writers were present at the legendary Writers’ Bench, a subway station on 149th Street and Grand Concourse, where they would share piece books and watch trains roll by.

“You could not buy paint, or you were called a toy. So I racked up three or four cans, and writers told me where trains were parked at Castle Hill,” BG183 said.

Bio, BG183, and Nicer met at James Monroe High School where BG183 and BIO happened to share a gym locker and sit together in art class. From my own work as an art teacher working in the Bronx for over twenty years, it was inspirational to me to hear Tats Cru talk about the support of their former teacher in their artistic development. BG183 fondly lists the formal artistic skills he learned there, and how students were encouraged to practice writing letters in class.  That same teacher’s husband helped Tats Cru obtain funds, through his job at Con Edison, to start up their business. Bio and Brim both lived in the Bronx River Houses. Around 1980 they formed TAT, called by many variations (Tough And Talented, Tough Ass Team, Top Artistic Talent, Toys Are Trash, etc.)

BG183 recalled painting his first train to earn the respect of fellow writers: “You could not buy paint, or you were called a toy. So I racked up three or four cans, and writers told me where trains were parked at Castle Hill,” he said. “If you were not afraid of heights you would do trains. I did my first BG throw-up, a quick B and G. I did one, so the other writer asked me if I did all ten cars. I went back and did all ten. The other writer said you did the whole train? I had to do more, front, back, and side. I did 30-40 cars. I started seeing my name on elevated trains. If you don’t see it someone else will. Not everyone will accept you. You have to give it 110 percent. Nobody will respect you until you give them more than them… Only the strong will survive. Everyone wants that fame wall. You have to be established or fight for a wall.”

Art by Tats Cru

Brim explained, “I began painting on the trains as a way of exposing myself and doing something, instead of just standing on the streets… getting into fights, and [as a way of] producing something.” He continues, “I liked to see the trains ride by with my name across it and it made you feel like you were somebody… living in a place like the South Bronx.” Brim has promoted graffiti as a bridge to understand other people’s lives: “The whole final thing of graffiti is doing something positive… [it gives people] an outlet to funnel their feelings in the Bronx, an aim in life. This graffiti and hip-hop thing go way beyond the final pieces… [we are] trying to help kids get out of the ghetto.”

The writers stopped spraying trains in 1985 when the city began intensifying its graffiti crackdown. Circumstances forced writers to begin working on walls.  Lee Quiñones explained: “My intent was to expand the work I made on whole subway cars to freestanding public spaces to engage people on a more intimate level above ground and to infuse a new conversation into the community.”

The whole final thing of graffiti is doing something positive… [it gives people] an outlet to funnel their feelings in the Bronx, an aim in life.

Crash is quoted in Beyond the Streets as saying “The street art model came later from the Lower East Side. It was interesting because if it wasn’t graffiti-it was just pure art.” The transition from trains to walls appears to have been natural progress born out of necessity, and circumstance for the members of TATS Cru who were no longer in high school. In the mid-1990s the police began going after street painters, so Tats Cru started a company to legitimize themselves and began painting walls locally for building and business owners. Soon they developed a reputation and a following. These commissioned murals were appreciated and later, as demand grew, they began to hire other artists to paint the murals. Today Tats Cru’s murals are seen throughout the Bronx.

Among the first walls painted by Tats Cru were memorial walls created to commemorate the fallen. In R.I.P. – Spraycan Memorials, Cooper and Sciorra, note that these murals were, “A tradition that started in the Bronx’s deadliest days… as vibrant reminders of those lost in the community and to honor the lives of neighbors who died.”

Art by Tats Cru

BG183 says, “There was a memorial wall where the parents wanted to draw their son with a gun across the street from where he was killed. His father wanted to draw the uzi. He said my son died because he wanted to sell drugs and be a drug dealer. If you sell drugs you will die. The community did not like it.” This portrait of White Boy John painted in 1995 and located on Southern Boulevard and Avenue St. John, later had the gun removed when the mural was repainted. “It has nothing to do with society or making a statement,” said Nicer. “It’s really more about just dealing with death amongst family and friends. it’s all about the neighborhood.” Sadly, both memorials to White Boy have since been buffed.

Among the first walls painted by Tats Cru were memorial walls created to commemorate the fallen.

Portraits emerged as part of the memorial walls and soon found their way into street art. I watched BG183 painting the portrait of Blanco for over four hours. Creating realistic portraits entirely of spray paint is an act of virtuoso for an artist. Numerous colors of spray paint are used to create shading, value, and the reflection of surrounding colors on the skin. Talking to BG183, the most difficult thing, when painting in front of an audience, is pleasing the family. It comes down to “What will they think?” It’s all about keeping it realistic, while making slight changes to create a portrait. Some artists add the small details with a brush, but Tats Cru uses all spray.

As the birthplace of hip-hop, The Bronx has always remained at the forefront of the culture. Tats Cru has collaborated with the three kings of hip hop’s early days: Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash. While many may not realize the intertwined history of graffiti and music, the 4 elements of hip-hop were: graffiti, MCing, DJing, and breakdancing. In its infancy the overlap between the elements was apparent. Kool Herc was a writer who got his name running with the Ex-Vandals Crew. Hip-hop’s birth is credited to Kool Herc’s apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue in 1973, when Kool Herc threw an after school party at his place.

Art by Tats Cru

In 2013 Tats Cru painted a mural dedicated to Kool Herc to commemorate hip hop’s 40th Anniversary. This realistic portrait included a red convertible with large speakers in the back and the sparse streets of the 1970s Bronx. Kool Herc is shown driving this convertible with the giant speakers around the Bronx in Beat This. The mural was created as part of the ceremony sponsored by Summer Stage when Sedgwick Avenue was co-named “Hip Hop Boulevard.”

As the birthplace of hip-hop, The Bronx has always remained at the forefront of the culture. Tats Cru has collaborated with the three kings of hip hop’s early days: Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash.

Bio and Grim grew up with Afrika Bambaataa in The Bronx River Projects. In 2015, Tats Cru painted a mural celebrating Soundview. It memorializes three important yet disparate members of the community: Bronx-born Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Afrika Bambaataa, and fallen EMT Yadira Arroyo. BG183 tells stories of his early years going to throw downs in the Bronx with DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and others where he worked security. In 1985 Tats Cru painted a mural for Grandmaster Flash’s album cover They Say It Couldn’t Be Done.

 

The connection between Tats Cru and hip-hop’s prodigies intersect in several ways. Tats Cru painted murals inside the Bronx River Center where Afrika Bambaata performed. Brim was featured in Afrika Bambaataa’s Renegades of Funk. Nineteen-year-old Brim traveled to the UK in 1984 with D.O.C. and Afrika Bambaataa, where he appeared in one of the first documentaries about hip hop culture, Beat This!: A Hip-Hop History.

In 2015, Tats Cru painted a mural celebrating Soundview. It memorializes three important yet disparate members of the community: Bronx-born Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Afrika Bambaataa, and fallen EMT Yadira Arroyo.

Tats Cru continued to collaborate with rappers such as Fat Joe, Big Pun and KRS-One. The memorial for Tony, commissioned by Fat Joe, was used as the cover art for his first album Represent in 1993. Soon TATS Cru was painting promotional walls for these artists. They painted Fat Joe’s promo for Jealous Ones Still Envy in 1995 on the side of a building on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Fat Joe was a writer before he was a rapper, and his crew TS, TERROR SQUAD, bombed with Tats Cru, and according to Brim. In 2005 Tats Cru painted the promo wall for Fat Joe’s All or Nothing. According to Brim, planets united when “I wanted to give Fat Joe all the experience I acquired over the years. This is a young kid coming from so much negativity wanting to do something positive.”

Art by Tats Cru

On February 7, 2000, the day Big Pun died, Tats Cru was scheduled to paint a promo wall for Yeeeah Baby, and instead painted their first memorial wall for Big Pun. As Tats Cru painted, an audience soon formed with Fat Joe, Hot 97, and fans. Tats Cru was arrested and held for several hours until the landlord realized the importance of the memorial and the artists were released. Since then, they’ve painted other tributes to Big Pun. One mural painted in 2010 shows Pun’s arms outstretched holding the Puerto Rican and a flaming microphone and includes lyrics from Pun’s song, You Came Up: “Ever since I was young, I wasn’t always Big Pun. It wasn’t always this fun. And I rose from the Slums!”  The most recent memorial was painted in 2018, during a gathering to remember Big Pun.

You can see work by Bronx artists at the Bronx Documentary Center, Crash’s Kreate Hub, Wallworks, The Bronx Artspace and Boone Walls, operated by Wen Cod.

Tats Cru continues to collaborate with KRS-One, with whom they go way back, with Tats bombing in an early music video, and more recently in the video for the remake of Better Than I’ve Ever Been with Nas, Rakim, KRS-One and Kanye. As KRS-One raps in The Bridge is Over, “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, The Bronx keeps creating it, and Queens keeps on faking it.” KRS-One and Tats Cru organized an exhibit commemorating 50 years of hip hop with 50 paintings by Bronx artists, each representing a year in hip hop.

The Bronx art scene remains, despite changes in the neighborhood. In some cases, artists work with developers and businesses as they enter the neighborhood, such as Fresh Direct and Doyle Auction House, creating murals on the warehouses. In others, the galleries and in some cases the buildings that house them, are owned or operated by local artists. You can see work by Bronx artists at the Bronx Documentary Center, Crash’s Kreate Hub, Wallworks, The Bronx Artspace and Boone Walls, operated by Wen Cod. Tats Cru headquarters is located in the Point Community Development Corporation, which is dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of Hunts Point. BG183 explained, “Activists came after [us] due to the problem with tourists coming to the neighborhood who did not spend money while looking at this public art.” Tats Cru focuses on creating their artwork and tries not to get involved in these debates.

Art by Tats Cru & CrashOne

In some areas, like Bruckner Boulevard in Mott Haven, restaurants and bars have opened up alongside the art venues. BG183 is “fine” with the development and growth of the South Bronx. “I grew up with abandonment and burning. I see love in the Bronx. It was dangerous. The new buildings have made it safer. Gentrification is not all bad. It makes the neighborhood better. There have been no abandoned buildings from 2000 on. There are new properties, restaurants, and new places.” As you travel around the Bronx you will see Tats Cru‘s art everywhere. Art by these Bronx natives is integrated into these neighborhoods preserving the history and culture of the Bronx, and reminding us to, as the Mott Haven mural says: Bring Art Back.

This Story is featured in UP’s yearly print – Issue 6: Graffiti. Order a copy here to see it in print alongside stories on 1UP Crew, Martha Cooper, PichiAvo, Danny Cortes, and more!

Christine DeFazio is an art educator and artist working in the Bronx. She created curriculum for The Met’s Astor Fellowship and Lincoln Center’s Arts in the Middle. She has degrees in Art History from StonyBrook and Hunter. As Director of Michael Hall Fine Art, she curated exhibitions and wrote publications on Renaissance and Nineteenth Century Sculpture. She has exhibited her own art which focuses on capturing the psyche of her sitters, often caught in a dilemma expressed through allegory or myth with a touch of Surrealism. She aims to convey stories of love, longing and despair, through her imagery of the female form.

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