For legendary graffiti artist Bio Feliciano, growing up in the South Bronx circa 1970s-80s meant rolling with his crew, steeling himself for regular gang fights and run-ins with the cops, and hustling day and night to bomb trains in kaleidoscopic wild style. He endured it all just for the short lived thrill of seeing his gang’s tag – Tats Cru – on the side of a train; and for the knowledge that his graf was thereafter part of a gallery of masterpieces rolling through New York City.
How’re you doing, Bio? Tell us how you started painting.
I started painting in early 1980. Growing up in New York City graffiti was always around me, but it wasn’t until this single moment when I was getting off a subway car and turned around and saw this huge cartoon character painted on the outside. That was my aha moment. I was like ‘Woah what is this? I need to do this. I want to do this.
How do you get your start in the graffiti world?
When you start out you’re a toy, which is a beginner with no experience and no skills. Nobody wants to be associated with a toy-everybody wants to be with the kings, the stars of the subway. So you have to gravitate to other toys and between the two or the three of you you get to know where the trains lay up at night and what yards to go tag, how and where to get paint. Back then we didn’t have the money so we would go steal spray paint, markers even black books which we used to draw in. There was a whole learning process to how the whole graffiti world functioned.
The world had to be a difficult one to break into…
It’s very territorial, very competitive. A lot of lawlessness. It was basically like one of those Mad Max movies where only the strong survive. The first the challenge was getting the paint, the second challenge was finding the spot where to go paint-illegally without getting caught-and the final challenge was what happened when the older guys pop up and took all the paint that you spent all day trying to rack. It was a constant battle.
Give us an overview of the scene at the time. Did that lawlessness feel ever present?
Well, the whole city sort of seemed that way. These were earlier times, when New York didn’t have a lot of money. There was graffiti was on every subway and abandoned cars in the street. You’d get on a subway and the last two subway cars were the wild west: people smoking drinking, listening to a radio. That was natural in New York at the time. The graffiti was just part of the whole scenery. It was the greatest time. You had so many people participating and evolving at that moment.
Was that sense of lawlessness or rebellion appeal to you, or was the scene’s appeal as purely artistic?
The sense of rebellion, not so much. That was something you didn’t focus on. The objective was you want to be known, you want to be famous within the graffiti culture.
I know that back then, there was this code of silence in the graffiti world, but were there graffiti writers that you looked up to?
You definitely looked up to a bunch of guys, but you gotta remember there was no internet. There was no, ‘let me Google and see what this persons work looks like’-you may not even know what these guys look like, you know? You may be sitting next to a writer on a train and you wouldn’t know who they are unless somebody else told you.
Did you have any way to recognize one another?
You’d just be on the subway train and look down and see paint or ink on someones sneakers and then be like, “You write?” and they’d be like ‘What do you write?’ That was how writers got to know one another.
What about the crews? How do they factor in?
You stuck with your crew. You didn’t venture outside of your crew too much with other crews or writers because A) safety in numbers and B) your group shared the common goal of whatever you wanted to accomplish. You would go into other neighborhoods, deep in tunnels in Brooklyn, wherever and you needed to be with your crew in case you encounter problems. It’s not like you’re going to get robbed in a subway tunnel and call the police.
What about the TAT Cru specifically, how did you guys get together?
In junior high school I met Brim. Brim was the founding member of TAT and it was Brim, Mac, myself and Base. This was maybe like 8th 9th grade middle school. When we got to high school we met BG, nicer and the rest of the crew. Back then there was anywhere between ten and twelve of us in the crew who were just pushing to make ourselves known. We had to compete with all these older established crews.
What about the camaraderie that’s been alive like such a long time between these guys?
We’ve been together so long, from girlfriends to wives to…everything. We’ve fought, cried, laughed. We’ve spent more time together than with out actual wives or families.
You guys took a trip to London in the eighties and painted some trains, which arguably spawned a whole movement? do you see your role in it being influential?
I didn’t even consider it at the time. It’s crazy just being in another country and doing what we do. Now we’ve done trains in Portugal and Germany, all over.
You guys must have had some heavyweight adventures together. Are there any specific incidents that stick out in your memory?
From raids to fights, there are so many. Each day brought a different adventure. You didn’t know what to expect. Some days would be uneventful but then there were days when everything would happen: you got in a fight or somebody almost got caught racking, you get to the tunnel or the layup you’re painting and halfway through the cops show up and you had to leave everything behind and it was a total waste of a day.
When you say fight…
Like literally fistfight. punch, kick, whatever it took.
And that’s as far as it went between crews?
For the most part the graffiti world was violent, but it wasn’t fucking killing. it was basically street fighting a few punches thrown, maybe a bat. At worse maybe somebody gets stabbed or cut. After that people knew where they fit in.
How often did you guys get hassled by the cops?
All the time. That was the constant battle. You could never get to comfortable. Sometimes you’re in a place that’s, vacant painting and it’s so quiet until you get that wakeup moment where either you hear the rocks rumbling or you see a shadow go past and you’re like ‘Oh shit, someones here.’ It’s this cat and mouse game.
Did that sense of risk heighten the art?
I don’t know if it made for better artwork, but I will tell you that it made for speedy artwork. You learn how to paint really quickly, and maybe on a subconscious level that was a drive that you fed off of. If you get raided once you got your cans spread out it’s not like ‘gimme a minute i need to pick all this up’ you’re just leaving paint behind that you spent days trying to get together.
If there was this constant danger, why did you keep doing it?
I don’t know man-just that thrill of seeing your name go by on a subway, however brief. You’d paint something the night before then wait hours all day to come and see it for that one minute. Then boom-it was gone and now you’ve moved to the next That was the whole purpose. I wish I could say there was a different agenda, a greater scheme, greater plan. But it was just that: one moment of standing out amongst the graffiti community.
When did you feel your own rep getting up?
We always believed we were good. Once we started hanging out at places where writers congregate, like the Writer’s Bench or different subway stops, other writers started telling us ‘I saw this train you did, and it was really good.
When your rep goes up do you get access to better territory?
When you start out you get the worst areas, but it’s a growing process. You literally fight your way to the top, you fought for locations, you fought to be here. You took other people’s paint. The same things that happened to you, you would reciprocating at a different level.
Your life might have been lawless, but I get the sense that there was some structure in within your crew? Do you think that structure gave you something you would have otherwise lacked?
You were with a group of people who shared your love of an art form that the rest of the world for the most part hated it because of what it represented and the destruction that it left in it’s path.
Was that sense of disturbing the system exciting to you?
Kinda yeah, the reactions you see. You would come in and catch a clean subway car be like ‘Aww, look at this.’ Then you destroy it with tags everywhere and feel satisfied in some kind of sick way. You want to go the next day and get on that subway car and just see people’s reactions to this destruction.
Tell me about the post train era once Giuliani came in and the city changed?
The way that era came about for us- we had already been painting for several years it was maybe late eighties, and the city was cracking down at subways and really buffing and keeping us at bay, so that was discouraging. At that point we were doing walls, rooftops, highways illegally. Instead of killing the movement, the city just shifted it from the subway out into the street.
Since your lawless younger days, you’ve done commercial works for rappers like Fat Joe and the late Big Pun, but also brands like Coca-Cola. Does that form a sort of paradox with the original motivations for getting into graffiti?
It’s funny because for us, the drive is still the same. Even though we’re doing commercial work we’re still working to put our name out there. It’s like ‘Allright, we can’t afford to put ads in all these magazines, we can’t afford television coverage. We’ll do work for this company and make money doing it and still get to promote ourselves in the process.’ We’ve always looked at it that way. A lot of artists have this problem with selling out, but I’m like ‘dude, you got to wake up.’ the reality is you gotta do something. A you can work for somebody at a 9 to 5, or B you can do what you like and try to make money off your art.
Now that you’re a public figure, have you gotten into any trouble with the law?
I try to keep the illegal stuff to a very bare minimum, every once in a while man i’ll sneak one or two tags-just enough not to be bothered by that. But it’s weird because you can’t even do that, I’ll take a tag and the very next day see someone post “Bio from TATS Cru took a tag on my building” and I’m like ‘Holy shit, i’m going to get locked up here.’
What about old rivals of yours?
Old oppositions have become friends, just because you share the same time and spaces memories from back then. All that anger and confrontation is in the past, everyone’s grown. We we’ve made it this far through the depths and have a mutual respect for each other.
How is it tagging during the winter months.
Whew, brutal. Who the fuck wants to be outside at 3 A.M. in twelve degree weather other than people trying to do illegal shit?
Did you ever consider, just, staying home?
Hell no, those are the best times. The trains are going to be in tunnels and everyones going to be home. That’s when you’re like ‘Fuck it, the streets are mine.”