I spent a couple of days with TATS Cru —”The Mural Kings” who began writing (what media would later call “graffiti”) in the South Bronx during the1980s— talking about their origins, gifts and blessings, as well as the act of creation.
Entering The Point felt like walking through a temple. There is something sacred not only about the space, but also the artists: BIO, BG-183 and Nicer.
This is significant, because it explains TATS Cru understanding of their very own gifts and blessings. Thing is there is much conflation about gifts and blessings, and whether or not they are curses (they are not curses). Likewise, there is the “diamond in the rough,” which signifies a hero or king, who must rise in the midst of trying environments. This interview turned into a lesson about transforming “lemons” into proverbial lemonade, as much as it was about being true to one’s self and family.
TATS Cru began in the South Bronx. Nicer remembered that the Bronx was “a day and age where neighbors parented everybody” and “grandmas with caramels and pennies” would give these treats to the kids who could buy candy with a penny. It was “a time of stickball and johnny-on-the-pony. It was our social media—hanging on a stoop until you heard ‘they calling you!’”
“It was simple, but it was a time of community,” Nicer said.
Then “crack and heroine hit big, and the kids grew up and turned into robbers,” Nicer recounted. Besides the crack epidemic and the fires, there was also the backdrop of general poverty, but Nicer told me, “I didn’t even know I was poor until later, and it didn’t matter.” The “fire was an everyday landscape” from which he drew inspiration.
So, while there was a literal decay of the Bronx, members of TATS Cru were having to grow up. Nicer said he experienced regular “teenage angst,” “the pressure to grow up” and “went through stages where nobody understood.” Nonetheless, Nicer “found a whole community underground who understood.”
“There was no Guggenheim for the Bronx, and writing was a way to bring arts to the streets,” BG-183 said. That experience taught him how to “hustle as a man, but in a positive way. That you can do what you enjoy.”
Likewise, BIO added, “art was the only realistic outlet.” When asked later, he indicates that he “didn’t know there was gonna be money involved” and his success “wasn’t planned.”
This particularly moment reminded me of Nietzsche:
Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s growing light.
In that, TATS Cru literally spearheaded Creation out of Poverty; and I would argue, and perhaps I’m not saying anything new, that without TATS Cru, the South Bronx might not have been as cohesive without them—that they created a family in the South Bronx during some of its most darkest moments in history.
And in this respect, “The Mural Kings” are an urban version of Plato’s “Philosopher King”—one who rules with divine and sacred masculinity, a power that is not the violent super-patriarchal, but the paternal which guides and builds. This kingdom was what I first felt as a temple, a space which requires a humble interiority, because these Kings also know and value life, individuality and the intrinsic creation each person represents. It was truly (and I hate the adverb “truly”, because it could easily lose its weight and meaning) humbling experience.
GIFTS AND BLESSINGS
Naturally, the question came about how did the members of TATS Cru discover their artistic talent. Nicer called his awakening moment the “Oh-Shit Moment,” after he submitted a drawing to a TV Guide ad, where he received acceptance to a contest. Nicer said he was also into comics, and when he saw the trains, he was reminded of comic strips panels. After he’d practice his art, he heard “see that writing, that shit is hot.”
BG-183 heard straight up “you have a gift” and was told “tu mano es una cosa increíble” by family members, namely his mom. He indicated it was something he had heard, but it took a while for it to “hit me:”
My mom used to tell me when I painted in the streets, and people said it again that I was blessed.
Like most (if not all) hero mythologies, BG also came to the point that this gift was also his responsibility, and he was determined in “using that gift until I die”. And although he uses the gift in service to others, in the moment of individual creation, “when you’re into it [your art] yourself, the gift comes through.”
When I asked Bio if he had ever dreamed of this particular future, he said “no, never, not even close,” that he “didn’t even know money was gonna be involved,” and if anything he “bears a blessing” that “wasn’t planned.”
I don’t think we have any real control. We have and need direction. Life will take you somewhere, it’s up to you to have the courage and ability to follow it.
Bio’s recognition came from what Nicer observed as “control” of the brush or can, which is strange, because, continuing on the subject of inspiration and the moment of artistic creation, Bio said whether “in control or not, I’m influenced by everything—colors and moves. Control? I don’t know. Art is a reality of what you want.”
POWER, ART AND THE ACT OF CREATION
However, according to Bio, such artistry requires “discipline, power and expression” and the source must be “genuine,” He explained:
There are some who are genuine and others want to ride in hope of becoming famous or popular, but it’s not a game, and not a hobby.
And even while painting, Bio said that “the last thing on your mindset isn’t painting, but expression itself.”
When artists are aligned with their artistry, there is usually art which speaks to people.
“I see a clear path of creation,” Bio said, but he admitted that there’s always a chance for “overdoing it.”
BG added that simplicity also communicates in a large way:
When you paint the most simplest stuff, people go crazy. It’s what people feel from around the world—that one picture that people love.
The message is also many things. For Nicer, street art is a way to show that “I’m here.” For BG, “art shows others my styles and I’m not imitating anybody.” Bio said one “can’t worry about risk. 80-90% of people never risk, never letting go of something certain.”
Then there was this from Nicer:
Think about the power this art gives you. This art form that empowered you out of the ghetto crossed socioeconomic barriers, genders and never in places you would think.
All from a temple in the South Bronx
Daniel Vidal Soto grew up in the Barrio North Side in Fort Worth, Texas and hails his roots in Acuña, Coahuila. He is a regular contributor to Latino Rebels and thenerdsofcolor. His poetry has been named one of La Bloga Floricanto’s “Best of 2014,” and has won the Loft Literary Fellowship and the 2014 Raed Leaf International Poetry Award. He teaches race, poverty and gentrification at LIU–Brooklyn.