The members of Tats Cru, a group of Bronx-bred graffiti artists who rose from underground spray painting to become sought after by major corporations, have never lost their all-consuming love for their craft. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
From painting subway cars in the middle of the night, to painting giant murals for corporations, to even representing New York City artists at the Smithsonian, Tats Cru members "Bio," "Nicer," and "BG183" are three guys from the Bronx with a journey of a story.
"You have the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument on one end, and then you've got thousands of people," says Wilfredo "Bio" Feliciano. "So, I'm painting, and then I turn around, and I just look and I see all these people, and I look at where we're at, and I turn to Nicer, and I say, 'We're not in any subway tunnels anymore.'"
Tats Cru is celebrated by graffiti artists and admirers around the world.
A present from a Russian artist proclaims the group "Koroli Sten,"or "Kings of the Walls."
The group's three members have been friends since the late 1970s and business partners since 1994.
Their client list is in the hundreds and reads like a corporate Who's Who, including McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Snapple, and American Express.
Even with their success, the group still works out of a small office in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
"We could've opened up an office on Fifth Avenue and rented space, or, what's trendy now, Williamburg? I could've rented a warehouse there, but it's not who are," says Hector "Nicer" Nazario.
Their work shows up in a variety of places – at exhibits like "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" in Times Square, on officially licensed iPhone cases and as neighborhood murals, including a memorial created in 2001 for the late rap star Big Pun.
Tats Cru's reputation is such that their work remains largely untouched by other artists.
"The younger kids identify with who we are, they want to do the stuff we do at that point so they leave it alone, and then the older guys are just too tired," says Feliciano.
They've also worked around the world, in places like Great Britain, Switzerland, Morocco, Ireland, China, and even in bomb shelters in Southern Israel.
"It's weird when you paint along guys who've only painted in Israel, and it's like, 'How the hell did you find out about graffiti?'" says Nazario.
"No matter where you're at, the culture is still the same," says Sotero "BG183" Ortiz. "You have people that are poor, people that are rich, the artists that are struggling."
The group's work is already the subject of a documentary called "The Mural Kings," and they're now collaborating on a project with 3-D pop artist Charles Fazzino.
The project, which the group is designing subway images for, focuses on 1970s New York and is only the latest in a long line of the group's collaborative efforts.
"It's the only art form that I know that people don't have to speak the same language to collaborate on something together and work cohesively," says Nazario.
Their work is intricate, and yet Tats Cru is still occasionally lumped in with more rudimentary forms of graffiti.
"'This type of graffiti is the same as this scrawling that they just did on the side of someone's church or house,' and they're like, 'No, this one took two days to complete and this one took two seconds, no it's the same thing, you guys are all the same,' and I'm like, 'Alright," says Feliciano.
When the group first started spray painting subways, their craft was called, according to the graffiti lingo of the 1980s, "Bombin.'"
"It was really hard at that time, because again, we didn't have no money," says Ortiz.
"You've got to remember we grew up in the Reagan era, where there were no monies coming into our community," says Nazario. "We didn't have art programs."
An early love of art at James Monroe High School turned into an all-consuming love for graffiti for all three members of the Cru.
"It involved so much planning and it consumed every minute that you didn't have time to hang out with your old friends anymore, who were out getting into bigger things," says Feliciano. "So, I mean it was definitely a blessing for us to have been able to have that outlet. A lot of people say, 'Oh, graffiti's bad,' but for me, graffiti saved my life."
Initially, the Cru was referred to as "toys."
"A toy is inexperienced, somebody who has no style, is not even good at it," says Feliciano.
"We had to learn how to hop trains," says Ortiz. "We would look in the station to see any police, and then we would hop on the train."
"You're not thinking 'I'm this outlaw,' you just want to paint," says Feliciano.
Where others saw vandalism, the Cru saw a chance to do their art.
"People getting on the subway trains would sit and there would be wet ink, so it was a nuisance for the rest of the city," says Nazario. "But for us, it was like our little rolling gallery, because we would paint a train here in the Bronx, and the train would travel through Manhattan and end up in Brooklyn, and all the other graffiti writers in between would see what we were doing here in the Bronx."
Through the '80s and early '90s, all three members had 9-to-5 jobs.
"People would tell – because I would sketch at lunchtime – they would say, 'You're so talented. Why are you doing here? You should get a job as an artist.' I said, 'How? Who is going to pay me for this artwork?'
After work, they still often spray painted late at night.
Eventually, however, something had to give – and they decided to leave their steady jobs and try to make Tats Cru into a business.
"Telling my wife that I'm going to be leaving my job making good money to start doing graffiti? She said, 'Are you crazy?'" says Ortiz.
"My wife at the time and my mother, I remember they were looking at me and were like, 'Are you on drugs? Is everything okay? Why do you want to leave?'" says Nazario.
While spray painting subway cars in the middle of the night required anonymity, building a business required the opposite.
The Cru got early crucial support from the mom and pop stores in the neighborhood.
"What they realized was that whenever we would paint, it would go untouched," says Feliciano. "It was colorful, the work was nice, but I think the selling factor was that nobody would write on it."
The companies started calling, perhaps, in part, because the outlook on graffiti art was changing.
"It's kind of like jazz, where people overseas started looking at it and going, 'Wow, that's great music,' but here in the States, they were like, 'That's not music,'" says Nazario. "But when they started realizing the attention was getting around the world, then all of a sudden it's like, 'Oh jazz, it's, you know, America's music,' and I can say that about graffiti."
Nicer, Bio, and BG183 are now approaching their fifties and they long ago gave up spending nights in the subways.
Back then, there was no way they could have predicted that their the love of graffiti art would take them around the world.
"From subways, to the streets, to corporate America, back to the streets again, but I'm still doing what I love to do, and going around the world and being kind of like an ambassador for this art," says Nazario. "And that's kind of like what we've become."