Legendary Tats Cru: The Guys Who Brought Color to the Bronx

PHOTO: For more than 30 years, Tats Cru has been raising the bar in graffiti art.PlayTats Cru
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At a recent event held at the Bronx Documentary Center, street art photographer Henry Chalfant and graffiti artists Wilfredo "Bio" Feliciano, Hector "Nicer" Nazario, and John "Crash" Matos gathered to discuss street art and graffiti. Decades ago, when they started doing graffiti, they had mastered running from the authorities, getting away with tagging subway cars and walls where their work was seen as a blight on an already depressed borough.

But 30 years later, a lot has changed. The room at the Documentary Center was alive with adoring fans, men and women of varying ages, many who had grown up with these iconic tags and murals in the South Bronx. The art that used to be seen as vandalism had become part of a gallery experience. It had become an inspiration for an entirely new generation, who had come to see their work as a product of the world they grew up in. It was art. From home.

As one fan explained, "For guys like me, who grew up poor, playing in the streets of the South Bronx, whose parents couldn't take them to a museum and the school system was failing in teaching me about art, all I saw was your art."

It's often said that "necessity is the mother of invention and creativity." People from the South Bronx often quote this to explain the spirit of their beloved and embattled home. For the greater part of history, the Bronx has been rampant with crime and drugs. In the 70's and 80's most of the buildings were burned out or decaying, there were empty lots, and rubble and garbage were everywhere. It was a district abandoned by the city and public services, suffering from some of the worst poverty in the country and home to mostly blacks and Latinos. Despite it all, two distinctly American art forms were born from this turmoil and soon captivated the world – hip hop and graffiti street art.

Bio, Nicer, and Sotero "BG183" Ortiz, met in an art class, at James Monroe High School in the South Bronx, during the early eighties. At the height of the New York City subway graffiti movement they would be among the first wave of daring teenagers risking injury, arrest, and not to mention the wrath of overly concerned mothers, by sneaking into train yards and tunnels at night to paint trains. Branding the "steel canvases" with an explosion of colors, graphics and elaborate lettering, the writers were competitive and motivated to outshine each other, pushing the art into new territory. "It was like smoke signals" explains Nicer, " I was communicating with someone in Brooklyn because I would paint a train here in the Bronx, and whatever I did, it would travel out of the Bronx, into Manhattan and end up in Brooklyn. All the writers in all the other boroughs got to see what I was doing. And they were painting stuff from over there. I would sit at the train station all day watching and photographing what was being done. It was a language, a way for us to communicate."

In the Bronx, graffiti and hip hop grew up as siblings. Artist such as Grand Master Flash, Zulu Nation, Houdini, KRS One and Busta Rhymes would commission Tats Cru to paint murals and sets for their music videos. Tats Cru would become super stars in the graffiti subculture and "when the hip hop artist started hiring us it propelled us onto the world stage" explains BG 183.

As the artists continued to hone their artistic skills on the streets, their style evolved from tagging "TAT" to intricate and complex, large scale murals for memorial walls or signage for local mom and pop stores. In 1996, Nicer, Bio, and BG 183, who were holding down regular jobs by day and painting murals during nights and weekends, decided to legitimize their business. They established Tats Cru Inc. to "show the world that graffiti is a viable art form". Nicer quit his day job painting mock-ups for a cosmetic line, to build up Tats Cru Inc., initially going store to store with pictures of their work and a business plan, seeking new clients.

Tats Cru have been invited to paint all over the world by various art organizations, collaborating with top graffiti artists from around the globe. They've created artwork for everyone from Coca-Cola to Bloomberg, Metropolitan Hospital to Columbia Pictures, Kiehls, Kodak, Nike and most recently, The W Hotel in Union Square. They've been invited twice to lecture at M.I.T., among other universities, and were part of the Smithsonian Institute's 35th Folklore Festival in Washington D.C. where Tats Cru was chosen to represent New York City. The gentlemen of Tats Cru are in the unique position of enjoying street credibility as artists, while running a successful commercial art business and still participating in their South Bronx community.

During the Folklore Festival in D.C. Nicer had a moment of revelation "I looked to the left and it was the Washington Monument. I looked to the right and it was the Capitol building and I said 'What is Carmen's little son, from Southern Blvd. in the South Bronx, who used to get chased in subway tunnels, what the hell is he doing painting a mural in Washington D.C.?'" It's been a journey of passion and love for what they do that's brought encouragement to many. As the fan at the Bronx Documentary Center confessed "Your art exposed me to something that wasn't otherwise available to me and I want to thank you for that."