Interview with BG 183

Bronx Oral History Center
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00:00:00 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: Steven Payne: Welcome to the Bronx Aerosol Arts Documentary Project. My name is Steven Payne Librarian and Archivist at the Bronx County Historical Society. Kurt do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself?
Kurt Boone: Yeah I'm Kurt Boone and I've been writing about urban culture for 40 years.
SP: Great. So today is March 1st, 2022 and we're really happy to be here with BG183 a founding member of Tats Cru, really legendary graffiti artist, master of style, and the intricacies of his backgrounds and the details in his pieces are just out of this world and BG will be talking a lot about growing up in the Bronx and his art, and we're excited to get into it.

Segment Synopsis: In this segment, Steven Payne and Kurt Boone, the interviewers, introduce themselves as well as the interviewee, BG 183, an early graffiti pioneer from The Bronx and founding member of Tats Cru, a legendary crew known for their style mastery.

Keywords: BG 183 (Graffiti artist); Tats Cru (Group)

Subjects: Bronx; Graffiti; Graffiti artists

00:00:45 - Family History and Early Life

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Partial Transcript: BG183: I remember there was a building right across the street from where I live at and through the windows and through the curtain I could see light, a lot of light coming through the curtains! And then when I used to open the curtain it was like one of the biggest fires in the South Bronx. It was like a total of 5 buildings--like a complex building connected together, and you could see the whole five buildings burning. And then after that it was kind of like, you know, my entertainment. You know I'm sleeping I'm trying to sleep and I see all this light I'm looking out the window, seeing this fire, hearing people screaming. And I'm like wow! this is kind of like, you know I'm young this is crazy. And then the next day in the news you'd hear four firemen had died in that fire...

Segment Synopsis: In this segment BG gives an overview of his parent's background, as well as his own childhood experiences. We learn his father was a professional baseball player in Puerto Rico who had experiences traveling throughout the Southern United States as a young man. The focus when his family moves to New York to BG's own life. We get a rich sense of the games BG and his peers played, including the rules of informal ball games in fashion at the time. We also see how the fires in his South Bronx neighborhood affected him, becoming "like an entertainment" to him at one point.

Keywords: African American children's games; Baseball; Handball; Jigsaw puzzles; Santurce (San Juan, P.R.); Santurce Crabbers (Baseball team)

Subjects: Art; Bronx; Children's games; East Harlem (New York, N.Y.); Fires; Outdoor games; Puerto Rico; Racism

00:12:56 - Adolescence and School

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Partial Transcript: BG183: That particular junior high school had just opened up. It was called Rafael Hernandez. He was a Puerto Rican musician. This school had everything. This school had a wood-shop, electrical shop, arts and crafts, sewing class. It was a school that was meant for, in my type of neighborhood, so-called the ghetto, was a school that had all this high end stuff to teach young kids.

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BG183: In the craft and art class I learned how to do stencils. That was my first time doing stencils. My teacher actually taught me how to use a razor blade, put it on the light to make sure you don't have extra paper sticking out. And during that time I was a great artist so I created this parakeet bird, and when he sprayed it, or I think he was doing silkscreening or whatever he was doing, he loved it. He showed the class and was like "look at this student." And I was kind of like shy back then I was like "ok."

Segment Synopsis: In this segment BG delves more into his experiences in Elementary and Intermediate schools. He gives a few great stories of his early experiences with art, including his first stenciling and how he came to treat art as a competitive skill to acquire. We also see the his relationship to the local street gangs growing, and how his identification with the burgeoning hip-hop subculture kept him neutral to the gangs, accepted but not necessarily "with" them. BG also talks about the stores early hip-hop participants were shopping at around Simpson St. and Southern Boulevard, and the types of clothes. He calls out Nike Cortez shoes in particular.

Keywords: Boogie Brothers; Chingaling (Street gang); Public School 66 (Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Rafael Hernandez Intermediate School 116 (Bronx, New York, N.Y.); Savage Nomads (Street gang); Savage Skulls (Street gang); Stencils and stencil cutting

Subjects: Education in art; Education--New York (State); Gangs; Gangs--New York (State); Hip-hop

00:22:43 - Involvement in Hip Hop

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Partial Transcript: BG183: When I went to his house and he's talking to his mom saying "Mom! Where's my gun at?" And I was like I can't even tell my mom where my slingshot or my peashooter was she'd whack me and this guy is saying "Mom, where's my gun at?" I thought he was joking and I hear his mom say "Yeah it's right here in the kitchen drawer." I said wait a minute. "Ok you sure which one is it? It's a small .22." Then I was like oh shit! What the... What's going on here? Next he asks for another gun, his mom says, "yeah I have it right here" and he says "Yo Ma can you bring it over" and his mom really brings it over, gives it to him and he's like "Ok Ma thank you" and I said wow. And this guy was one of the guys that when people heard his name they rand. So he was my friend! I remember we walked over to where Grand Wizzard Theodore was performing and he's walking around with a shotgun. And we got to the area where they're DJing at and he tells me "Yo, I want you to do this. Grab the shotgun, put it on the side, and walk around." And I said to myself like, why? Next thing you know I grabbed the shotgun and I walked around.
KB: You did it!
BG183: I did it. Then I tried to give it back to him and he was like "Nonono, walk around a second time." I said ok, walked around a second time, and then after that I see Grand Wizzard Theodore DJing, he got his crew. Back then if we didn't do stuff like that you got robbed for your equipment. A lot of DJs got robbed for their equipment.

Segment Synopsis: This segment details how BG 183 got involved in the hip hop scene. Gang-member friends doing security for park jams introduced him to the music and gave him access to DJ equipment and BG would become obsessed with the music. He also talks about the violence in the hip-hop clubs, how eye contact was dangerous and he and his friends would hang in the back and stay for the music, allowing them to observe who's wearing what and who's getting robbed. He also talks about his work making hip-hop flyers in the 80s later on. In addition, of the earliest art jobs he got was to replicate ticket stamps to get into clubs and parties for a discount. We also hear how the early hip hop hits were already considered played out by the time they made it to the radio due to being found on mixtapes and in performances for up to a year before.

Keywords: Grand Wizzard Theodore; Grandmaster Flash; Rivas, John "Mr. Magic"; Savage Skulls (Street gang)

Subjects: Audio equipment; Gangs; Hip-hop; Hip-hop dance; Hip-hop--Influence

00:37:37 - High School

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Partial Transcript: BG 183: I went to James Monroe High School. You know one of those high schools that was so bad. The reputation was no good. And for me it was like my district school so when I went there who I saw? Everybody in my neighborhood. My brother's there. I remember my first time being at James Monroe high school you know you had to give like a ticket to get your lunch. So I gave my ticket and I had sat down and left my coat and bookbag. Then I went back--I went to get my lunch and came back and somebody was sitting in my chair. I said holy shit somebody is sitting in my chair! And I see my brother and all my friends here. And I asked the guy, yo you sitting in my chair! And then he went "This is not your chair." Next thing you know my brother and my friends say "yo get up." "Oh okay! I didn't know he was your brother." So I'm already connected at the school. So I think I was blessed to be connected to a lot of people that were someone... I grew up safe.

Segment Synopsis: In this segment BG details his experiences attending James Monroe High School, which was his zoned school, meaning he already knew most of the students attending from around the neighborhood. This afforded him some protection not extended to most students, meaning he could openly wear his gold chains and 8-ball jackets. We also learn about his experiences in gym and art classes, which led to meeting the person who would come to be BIO, one of the founding writers of Tats Cru and a close friend of BG.

Keywords: Bio (Graffiti artist); Bon 5 (Graffiti artist); James Monroe High School (New York, N.Y.); National School Lunch Program (U.S.); Pome (Graffiti artist)

Subjects: Education, Secondary--United States; Fashion; Fashion--Social aspects; Graffiti; Tats Cru (Group)

00:53:00 - Entry into Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: BG: I was doing other names I had a name called GAPP, I didn't like it. Then I had another name I didn't like I don't remember the name I was using. So every name I didn't like
SP: tried them out
BG: Yeah. Then the only name that I liked it was because after a while--remember I was playing softball--
KB: You's an athlete
BG: I was real nice. So there would be a man on second and third, and we're losing, and they'd be like "Yo bring the batters in." So that's what I used to do. I was so nice I could hit it over first, I could hit it over third, I'm a switch hitter, so. So I used to bring the batters in. So BRING. Oh BRING that's a good name. I started writing B-R-I-N-G, but it was too long. So I cut it down to B-G. I took the first letter, last letter, and put it together.

Segment Synopsis: This segment goes through the beginning of BG's graffiti bombing career, getting his name, improving his style, slowly integrating into the community, his early experiences, and becoming the leader of a crew. Notable is the discussion of the Writers Bench located in the 149 St-Grand Concourse IRT station. BG talks about the layups he was able to hit and the lines he was most interested in painting. He also brings up the emergence of the "White Elephant" train fleet, a failed experiment by the NYCTA in 1981-82 to prevent graffiti by whitewashing large portions of the fleet with a teflon-paint mix, but as BG points out, actually encouraged them by providing a clean stable canvas for graffiti.

Keywords: Bio (Graffiti artist); New York City Transit Authority; Shoplifting; Writers Bench

Subjects: Anonyms and pseudonyms; BG 183 (Graffiti artist); Graffiti; Graffiti artists

01:17:20 - Adult Life and More Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: BG: We did like the Ghost Yard, the Ghost Yard was on like 207 St, it was a yard that was only us. Anyone who went in left with their head cracked, sneakers taken, jewelry.
SP: What Line was that on?
BG: It was a yard. It's on the 1 Line. On the West Side, on 207, and I think it's Broadway.

Segment Synopsis: This section details BG's early adult life, including his employment preparing and installing heavy metal apartment building doors. He also details his graffiti activities at the time with the crew TAT, an early iteration of Tats Cru. He worked with BRIM at the behest of Afrika Bambaataa to paint the inside of the Bronx River Center, briefly worked in a Graffiti and Hip-Hop based television program on PIX 11, all the while continuing his activities on the trains. What comes out is the significant violence of the scene, for instance he and his crew were able to maintain a monopoly on "Ghost Yard", the 207 St maintenance yard in Inwood, Manhattan by robbing any would-be competition. According to BG, this was exacerbated by the increasing security of paint stores in the City, making paint a valuable commodity that writers would travel even out of state to secure (and ultimately rob each other for). He details one event where he and his crew were robbed at gunpoint for their pain in Brooklyn, at a layup near Utica Ave, but allowed to finish their pieces first by the robbers, which he ended up seeing running on the trains.

Keywords: Afrika Bambaataa, 1960-; Grim (Graffiti artist); Krylon; Shame 125 (Graffiti artist); Violence; WPIX (Television station : New York, N.Y.)

Subjects: Employment; Graffiti; Graffiti artists; Railroad yards; Robbery; Spray painting; Tats Cru (Group)

01:30:13 - Creation of Tats Cru and Mural Career

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Partial Transcript: KB: So you was TAT what did T-A-T stand for at that time?
BG: Ok it was Tough Ass Team, Tough Ass Teenagers, The Art Team, anything that stand for TAT...
KB: And then the S you added with the third--so to become Tats Cru, maybe explain a little about how that came about.
BG: Right so the Cru, Bio came up with the Cru because of, he didn't want to write Crew as C-R-E-W. So that was like slang so we did TAT CRU, that was there since the early 80s.

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BG: Like, I'm a graffiti artist, I paint graffiti, now I'm painting faces for these people that died! and I say to myself, "I can't handle this no more!" I'm hearing the news, I'm doing memorial walls, you know people just dying left and right. And I'm like, to talk about it nicely, "I can't take this no more, I can't draw this." You know I'm painting the face, and they come up behind me and they're talking to me. And I look, they're not talking to me! They're talking to the mural that I'm painting on the wall.

Segment Synopsis: This segment details the evolution of Tats Cru, how it evolved out of the graffiti crew as the members got older into a powerhouse of muralists. BG goes in depth on the spiritual toll memorial murals took on him, as well as hardships faced from the media who portrayed them as drug dealers and thugs, with memorial murals being whitewashed by the city.

Keywords: Coca-Cola; Graffiti Hall of Fame (Harlem, New York, N.Y.); Mortality; THE POINT Community Development Corporation

Subjects: Art and business; Education in art; Graffiti; Mural painting and decoration; Mural painting and decoration, American; Tats Cru (Group)

01:50:33 - Becoming a Business

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Partial Transcript: BG: Even when we went to go look for walls to go do this stuff we would go and talk to the landlord, and say look, we're gonna do a graffiti mural, "Nah I don't want it." And then we'd go back and say oh we're gonna do like a mural, a graffiti mural here. And I said, damn what's going on? Maybe I have to stop saying graffiti and say art. Oh we're gonna do an art mural here "Oh okay!" And that's how it all opened up. And again the media was also saying graffiti's not good in the 90s, be careful.

Segment Synopsis: This segment deals with the transition from "graffiti" to "art" with the Tats Cru. It was clearly not a clean break, the crew was writing heavily with Crack TS, more likely known by Fat Joe, at the time of the early transition. The portmanteau of TAT and TS is where Tats come from as a name. It also deals with how the business has been run from BG's perspective and his recent gallery experiences.

Keywords: Big Pun; Coca-Cola; Fat Joe; KRS-One (Musician); Mad Lion; Tats Cru (Group)

Subjects: Art and business; Graffiti artists; Mural painting and decoration; Mural painting and decoration--Technique; Street art

02:09:10 - Influences, Technique, Global Futures of Graffiti

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Partial Transcript: KB: How do you feel about this mural movement around the world? And you being a part of that, 'cause you travel the world and are an inspiration to this whole mural movement. Now it's way more than tagging its a whole global movement of murals. So how do you feel about the name Mural Kings and this whole mural movement.
BG: When I started doing the graff you had artists like Lee. Lee was doing incredible murals back then in the 80s. He did one that was in the train station that was like my internet. You know back then the way you saw murals was you had to travel, by train like. So Lee had one that was from, I think from 34th Street to 14th Street there's an abandoned 4/5 train station. I think it's on 27th Street and it's abandoned. And when the train is going slow you could see the abandoned, and he had this mural that he painted, this Egyptian guy on a camel. It was a silhouette. So he did like yellow and orange this guy, and beige into browns for the sand. And on the tip of the mountain of the sand he did like a camel with an Egyptian like a silhouette and he drew like the shadow of the camel of the silhouette and it was so amazing. Like, wow I didn't know you could do that with spray paint! Like you could do art!

Segment Synopsis: This segment details how BG views the global mural movement, and his place within it. He speaks about those that were doing murals before him and inspired him, including LEE and SEEN, as well as new artists in the US and abroad who look up to BG, including those BG met on trips to Mexico and Brazil.

Keywords: Brazil; Mexico--In art; Quinones, Lee George; Seen (Graffiti artist), 1961-

Subjects: Mural painting and decoration; Mural painting and decoration, American; Spray painting; Zines

02:20:39 - The Bronx According to BG 183

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Partial Transcript: SP: I got one final question for you, which is what does the Bronx represent to you?
BG: For me the Bronx represents everything. It represents life, represents me as a person, because without me living in the Bronx and showing me different elements of life, from being poor, from being broke, from seeing everything. Like when people say, "You live in the Bronx?!" "Where?! In the South Bronx?!" You know for me it was like life. We had the hydrant, we had sports, we had the street games, everything that only a poor neighborhood would have, and we did, you know have the crime rate. You had to protect yourself. You had you know, your friends that was doing so much crime. Or you had your friend who passed away too early in the game, and you didn't want to hear about that. And you had everything that, you know like KRS-One says, "The Bronx keep creating it" and that's what we've been doing for many years. We create something out of nothing. That's what the Bronx represents. If you are born and raised here somehow you're talented in some how and some where in your life. If you want to be a dancer you go knock on your next door neighbor and he's a dancer. You wanna be a DJ you go upstairs and DJ. You wanna do graffiti the wall across the street has graffiti. Everything that you want is here.

Segment Synopsis: This segment is BG wrapping up his interview by answering what the Bronx means to him. He talks about the Bronx spirit of "making something of nothing" and shouts out everyone who has shown him what that means. He wraps up by writing a tag for the BCHS library.

Keywords: Díaz, Ruben, 1948-; New York Yankees (Baseball team); Salsa (Music); Tats Cru (Group)

Subjects: Bronx; Community, creativity, choice, change; Graffiti; Hip-hop