How and Nosm
photographed by Debra Scherer
Artists Raoul and Davide Perré take us on a tour through their world, recalling early days painting trains and becoming muralists with Bronx natives BIO, BG 183, Nicer, Kenn, Raz, Shame 125 and Soze, aka TATS CRU, while reflecting on their development into the fine artists they are today. Just don’t call it street art.
Debra: Thanks for having me here in the studio. So lets talk about how you wound up here in New York?
Nosm: When we started out we were tagging and eventually got into painting trains and painting walls illegally, then it developed into doing legal walls, and then eventually into painting canvases. The media started calling it all graffiti because the graffiti artists started doing murals. We call it muralism or mural paintings, but you know, they gave it the term street art, which, really, I don’t know what that is.
We were born in San Sebastian, that’s the Basque region of Spain, in the north, where we lived for 5 or 6 years until we moved to Germany, where we spent about 17 years. We started doing graffiti in ’88, and at one point we wanted to visit the so called “mecca” of graffiti, New York City, that was in ‘97.
How: Then we came back in ‘98 for a month, then we decided to stay, so we’ve been painting here for over fifteen years.
DS: So you came to the mecca of graffiti, then what did you do when you arrived?
How: We knew of the scene, we knew who the major players in the graffiti world were, and most of them are in New York City and in the ’90’s most of them were still active, but instead of painting subways like they used to do, they were painting on walls. So we knew some people but didn’t have any direct contact with them, no information.
Nosm: The only thing we had was a magazine, I believe it was called Fat Cap Magazine, and in the back there was a little advertisement for Fat Joe and his store, Fat Joe the rapper, he used to have a clothing store up in the South Bronx on Melrose, and the house number was 560 so he called the store 560.
How: He was also a graffiti artist so we thought we would go visit the store. It just turned out that Brim, one of the founders of TATS CRU, was actually running the store, and we started talking and sure enough he started asking us who we are and what had we done and he wanted to see some of our work, so he put us in touch with BIO, BG and Nicer, who were at the time the most active crew members. He was impressed by our work and he gave us BIO’s beeper number, even though we didn’t know what a beeper was, and we got in touch with him.
DS: A beeper number! That is so ’90’s! Did you know of TATS CRU before hand?
How: I didn’t know all of the members, but I knew of BIO and Nicer, and we knew of T.A.T not as TATS so we thought we knew.
Nosm: The thing was, we didn’t have the Internet so we didn’t know every wall and painting they had done, but we had seen a few books. One was called Spray Can Art, and there were a few pieces of theirs in there. It was published in 1980 and is quite popular in that world. There are a few black and white magazines where we saw their work, it really was just a coincidence that we hooked up with TATS CRU, you know? But once we met them, it was very natural. They were friendly to us, we spoke Spanish they spoke Spanish, we had a bunch of beers and we got along.
DS: Beers! It’s always about the beers!
How: So after about a month, they decided to put us down with the crew and represent them in Europe and all of our extensive travels because they knew we were going to represent hard.
Nosm: I mean we were lucky too, we did a lot of walls with them, we did a lot of walls on our own because they organized wall space for us, we also did some trains here on our first visit, we got to meet a whole bunch of pioneers; Cold Crush Brothers and Africa Bambaataa, and a whole bunch of other people, we were just so fortunate to meet them. There are a lot of other artists who came back in the day and they didn’t meet anybody, they had to buy a lot of paint or steal it, but we had a hook up. Nowadays it’s easy, you just go online you look for artists, you can email a hundred different artists in NYC and hopefully someone will answer.
How: If you have talent, then other artists will want to work with you.
Nosm: We came not knowing anybody and staying in the projects with some family that we knew.
DS: So you were still painting trains at that time?
Nosm: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s much more important than to paint murals. I mean there are some we did on the street and on buses, but it’s really about subway art, graffiti. If you do that you have kind of like an Academy Award.
How: Back then, yeah, now the Internet made everything easier. I’m not going to say why it’s easier to paint the trains nowadays, but, we can talk and communicate with each other, and that’s how it works. Back then you had to know somebody or be clever enough to do it and just pass along information.
DS: So was it TATS CRU? Were they the ones who really organized the whole process for everyone?
How: It didn’t start that way, TATS CRU is a graffiti crew, there are many members, but BIO, BG and Nicer decided to make it into a job and they founded the organization that became a business. They started out doing local stores and grew into doing major projects for a more corporate America.
Nosm: We were already doing business in Germany, but not to that extent.
DS: So up in The Bronx, we hung out with BIO, and who else was there?
How: BIO was there, BG was there, Nicer was there, Kenn was there, Raz was there, they are all the original TATS CRU, Shane 125 was there…
DS: I can’t even describe that scene. I mean first we hung out in the club house, the office…
Nosm: The office! The work environment! Otherwise it sounds like a gang!
DS: Well I wouldn’t want anyone to get that impression! It was amazing to watch and listen to all of you guys, the back and forth. Then eventually we wound up outside and the music came out and then the fun really began.
Nosm: It was all very natural, that’s how we are. They knew you were coming so they made sure they didn’t have anywhere else to be and then, since we hadn’t seen each other for a while, of course we were going to have a bunch of beers, we joke a lot, that’s just the way it is.
How: Then one guy starts to paint, and then everyone says, “ok, I’ll do a piece too, why not?”
DS: The way everyone was commenting and shouting and pushing each other, it was incredible to see the dynamic and how much fun everyone was having. I was shooting and you were painting, and everyone was dancing…
Nosm: The only thing missing was barbecue…next time!
DS: So that’s one big side of your work, but there are many other sides as well.
Nosm: Well we’ve done trains, murals, and for ten years commercial murals and ads.
DS: You have a pretty successful fine arts career and you have a big public work coming up in Detroit.
How: It’s going to be a mural 354 feet tall, the tallest mural in the world. Once we do it, that is!
DS: Let’s talk about the labels, the terminology that the media uses to describe your work, bunching you together with street artists. I feel like the word “street” has been co-opted to mean sort of nothing. There is street style, street photography, street art, and none of it is real. It’s hard to know what it means anymore.
How: Most artists never have even been to The Bronx, they just paint in the so called good neighborhoods, and spots that are up and coming like Bushwick, Williamsburg, or downtown somewhere to be seen. They know it’s where the galleries are at, where hipsters with money are at, potential customers with money who can buy artwork from them and take pictures, put them on Instagram, but most artists we know don’t give a shit about that really. We would just do a painting, take a quick picture and go on to the next one.
Nosm: We do it for ourselves first. Then we hope it benefits the communities we work in, the so called “underdeveloped neighborhoods,” and then, of course, to better the other crews that are out there.
DS: So it’s like a battle with the other crews out there?
Nosm: Yeah, yeah. We say “did you see what this crew did?” “yeah yeah, that shit was small, we’ll do one twice that big and way better and burn fire up their asses.”
How: That was the drive, it was an
underground movement, it wasn’t like, “ok, this gallery owner is going to see my piece and then I’m going to be done.”
DS: So it’s like, what you guys and BIO and everyone does is truly a form of communication, between each other as much as to everyone else, if not more.
How: When it comes to graffiti, yes, definitely. Most people can’t relate to graffiti lettering, they say “what is this?” They feel alienated, scared and they might know about the violence and what not, but when they see a mural, they can say, “oh, that’s pretty.” There is a face in there, something they recognize, and can say “oh, I like that.” It immediately draws a different crowd. When we do our graffiti, it’s really just from one graffiti artist to another. It’s just for the movement.
DS: I grew up in New York in the ‘80’s and there was so much amazing work, I mean the city is unrecognizable now, even though I’m sure most of it was shit.
Nosm: I prefer shit graffiti to street art. There is some good street art, but mostly it’s just shit. I consider most of it just something from an Illustrator file, cut out and a kid standing on a corner with some stencil stuff. It’s just horrible. There’s no creativity at all.
How: The worst is wheat pasting. You just print something out then you go in the streets and just paste it like a poster onto a wall and call it street art.
Nosm: Yeah, then you say, “hey, I’m an artist! I’ll take photos you took and print them out a little bigger, paste them and say, yeah, now I’m an artist.” There is some great wheat pasting too, some individual pieces, one of a kind, they paint it, they cut it out in the studio…
How: Like Swoon, she paints it in the studio, all hand drawn, hand colored, then wheat pastes it. That’s an art piece.
Nosm: It’s important you can see that there’s work behind it and some cool ideas. It’s cool, but not everyone can be an artist. You’re cheating the audience, pretending to be an artist just by downloading images.
How: In the “graff” world, if your shit is whack you get painted over and you’re not painting no more, that’s it. In the street art world, they all want to be buddies and they’re all friends and are all like “that’s cool” when it’s really shit, and they want to be friends because they have this many followers. The graffiti world has nothing to do with the street art world, but the street art world likes to associate with us. They say “I used to paint” but we say “when did you paint? When did you do graffiti? One tag or something?” No, they just want to get the street cred.
DS: So is that the worst insult you can get? Is to be painted over?
Nosm: Well it happens, even to the best.
DS: It seems like those kids just have the aspiration to skip right to the commercial stuff without earning any of the cred. They only can judge relevance by the number of followers.
Nosm: Yeah, it’s getting to the point where we don’t even want to say we are graffiti artists anymore.
How: We never used to tell anyone we did it because first of all, there were only a few of us, so it was too small a community. Second, because then people thought it was just kiddie stuff, no future, so we just minded our own business. Now these kids want to do the jump to commercial work real quick. They just want to do a few murals in the specific areas where the hip crowd goes. They get a lot of attention that way. They might be discovered. They’re mostly one hit wonders.
Nosm: Because if you do street art you are an artist, if you do graffiti you’re a vandal.
DS: But as a matter of fact, you do projects that are the opposite of that, more humanitarian work. Tell us about that.
How: Yes, we do outreach projects at least once a year. It depends how much time we have, so we have done several over the last few years. The last one we did was when we went to Palestine, the Jordan Valley, we worked with kids and with Bedouin women. First we went to see how it was there, and bring attention to the problem because we are known and people look to what we do. We went there with MAP, Medical Aid for Palestinians, they sponsored it and we worked with the kids. It was about teaching them that they could do murals and we taught them about stencils and spray cans. We showed them our world a little bit just so they can see that there are other things besides violence in their town.
Nosm: So we did a workshop with about 20 kids, between 10 and 12 years old and we created a mural on paper and then collaged it onto a wall. We did sketches and ideas first, we had different teams, and then they closed them in with brushes and acrylic paints and pens, then when each one was finished we would cut out different shapes in the paintings and collage it together on a wall and create one huge mural.
DS: Even up in The Bonx, the TATS CRU compound is also a community center, you all have such strong ties to community and neighborhoods.
How: It started in ’95, in The South Bronx, where the Hip Hop movement was developed. They wanted to have a community center that wasn’t just the typical dance or music classes, so there they teach DJ-ing, B-Boying, graffiti and poetry; not the typical school curriculum.
DS: So they were the arts native to their community?
Nosm: That’s how TATS CRU got involved with the community center, they do a workshop with the kids. Working with kids can be fun, sometimes it can be depressing, depending on where we are, but when we were kids nobody taught us, so it feels good to teach them, to make something positive with what we do, especially because it’s always portrayed as being negative. A lot of kids have no money and cannot go to art classes or have access to materials. This way we can give back.
How: We would do more, but there is only so much we can do. Hopefully other artists will do as much as we do. It’s always about giving back, but it’s always nice to see those kids in poor countries and poor neighborhoods, even here in New York City, be happy and excited to meet us and work with us and develop a mural, even though it might be just on paper, it’s very satisfying.
Nosm: A lot of people helped us to get where we are. You have to give back to them.
How: So when non-profits reach out to us, if it fits into our schedule or we think it’s important, then we do it.
Nosm: We’ve done high schools, we’ve done preschools, we’ve done The Smithsonian…
How: We’ve done some work with prisons, we’ve done projects with Rikers Island and lectured at M.I.T. as artists in residence.
DS: So do you think, now that it’s not 1977 anymore, do you see a next generation of artists growing up with the same intention? When we first met and I asked you why do you do what you do? You answered, “because when we were kids we wanted to fuck shit up.” Who are those kids now?
Nosm: Well that’s the whole idea behind doing graffiti, but today? It’s considered a felony, so a lot of kids don’t want to have a record like that, especially if they have no talent, they want to become successful in the business which is hard if you have a felony record.
How: A lot of kids don’t want to take that weight and a lot of the old graffiti artists turned into successful mural artists, so the kids have only that to emulate.
DS: It seems like they are going into it now with the intention to get hired by a brand to do commissioned work right from the get go.
Nosm: I would say Europe still has it, America still has a little bit, but in Europe people still paint trains.
How: Now you do still see a little bit of tagging and throw ups around here in New York, but it’s not as much as it used to be and the city cleans up more than it used to.
Nosm: Now there are a lot of cameras, a lot of informants and everyone with cell phones.
How: I don’t think it’s going to die out. Every generation has to cope with the new changes. Back in the day when kids were painting trains there were no fences, you could just go into the train yard. Then there was a fence, but it was only 5 or 6 feet high. Then they put in the double fence with the barbed wire and people found ways around that. There will always be a way around.
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