Five men draw brightly colored letters on the walls around the railroad tracks near East Fordham Road in the Bronx, surrounded by crates of spray paint. They move gracefully with the vibrant mist , creating sharp, crisp lines. Quiet as Buddhist monks, they fill in their letters with colors like “dragon green” and “pussy pink”, creating depth within the wall. Only the noise of mixing balls and hissing aerosol escape the scene. Just a couple feet away from the tracks, two graffiti artists, Skeme and Chain 3 paint their names on a subway car. They aren’t afraid of being caught.
They shouldn’t be; they aren’t breaking any laws.
This all occurs in “the yard,” an alley owned by Tuff City Styles, a tattoo store located on 650 East Fordham Road in the Bronx. The owners, who are graffiti artists themselves, recreated the alley to resemble a train yard with a set of railroad tracks in the middle and a full-scale model of the exterior of an old subway car.
For eight years, the yard at Tuff City Styles has been a haven for graffiti artists looking for a legal space to paint. Many artists that visit Tuff City used to be subway graffiti writers in the 1970s and ‘80s that grew up and quit. They no longer want to vandalize; they want to use graffiti to make a positive impact “His facility is like a daycare for adults,” said Skeme, a prolific graffiti writer who was made famous in the 1984 graffiti documentary “Style Wars.”
And adults are exactly what they are. As kids they broke into train yards, but now they raise families and pay bills. Some work as full time artists, while others are college art professors or world touring DJs. One artist, who goes by the name Bids, worked as a chemist for 15 years.. Although Bids was making a good amount of money as a chemist, he wasn’t happy, so he went back to his childhood passion. Today, he works at Tuff City, where he manages the yard and the graffiti shop.
Being adults, they’re no longer willing to get arrested for their work; they don’t romanticize the illegal side of graffiti. Now, Bids encourages others that want to get into graffiti to come to Tuff City and paint legally. He believes that graffiti can be used to help troubled kids find a creative outlet and has worked with kids at schools and community centers.
“I did it illegally 20 years ago because that’s what it was as a kid,” Bids said. “But as you get older, you realize this is not what you want to be known for. What I want[ed] to be known for was for what I was doing on the walls, but I wanted to be known the right way. So I came here and that’s how I started.”
Despite the positive impact legal graffiti writers are trying to make, it is difficult for them to gain access to legal spots and showcase their artwork. Graffiti writer BG 183, of the professional mural group Tats Cru, said over the phone that getting permission from landlords can be an issue. Sometimes they will reply within a week, sometimes three months. And the landlord can flat out reject an art proposal if they don’t like it. There are also “fame spots,” which are walls that get high foot traffic and usually require an artist to be well established or have good connections to get a chance to paint.
This is how a place like Tuff City comes into the picture. At Tuff City, fame isn’t required, and there isn’t any waiting period for permissions. Their policy is simple: purchase spray paint at Tuff City and you are free to paint there. Artists of all skill levels are welcome, whether it’s a legendary subway graffiti artist or a young kid trying to put his first sketch on a wall.
But just because anyone is allowed to paint at Tuff City doesn’t mean graffiti is easy to make. Artists put in hours of work to complete a “piece” (slang for a large complex work of graffiti). They spend time giving their letters a 3-D effect, and take care to fill in each letter with the right balance of color. Although they make it seem effortless, each artist has his or her own style that took years to develop.
“Just the different widths and lengths and the way it curves in certain places– that’s what takes years and years to figure out,” said Jerms, another artist who regularly paints at Tuff City. “You can go to an amusement park and there’re 15 cartoon guys that can paint a portrait of somebody but they can never do that.” He points to a graffiti piece of an artist named Soze on the wall.
But what draws graffiti artists across the city and from around the world to Tuff City is the sense of camaraderie shared among graffiti writers. With a good amount of space and a relaxed painting policy, Tuff City is a place where old and new writers can meet and share a common interest. Two artists that have never met can work side by side and collaborate with each other. For others, Tuff City is a place where old friends can link up and relive childhood memories by painting the mock train in the yard.
“It’s a really weird feeling to be honest with you, it’s almost like time travel,” says Skeme as he looks at his finished piece on Tuff City’s train. “And it’s not until somebody says something to me and kind of snaps me out of it that I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s 2016.’ But in the moment, when I’m painting, I’m totally immersed.”