SERIES | Married to the Game: ‘At 14 I learned the art of graffiti’

Graffiti artist Richard Rodriguez enjoys the NYC skyline from the South Bronx rooftop of The Point Community Development Center. Rodriguez and his fellow graffiti artists use the community space to create.
Photo ET Rodriguez

This article is the first installment of a four-part series — “Married to the Game” — that takes the reader on a journey, recounting the stories of Bronx graffiti artists as told by a Bronx graffiti artist who grew up in the game. 

It’s always the night that calls a graffiti writer — stealth. The ability to hide covered by the inky black sky with just the distant stars and a few street lights tossing illumination. The adrenaline rushes through pulsating veins with such an intensity that they don’t think about the dangers that face the mission. They just don’t. It’s all about “getting up” and leaving your tag. Being seen.

To millions of people what they do is seen as a plight in the city. They are called vandals. But they are not. They are street artists and the city — a moving museum.

Here’s my story. I’ll start it off. I am weary of attention which I understand is a paradoxical conundrum.

The Point Community Development Center is where local artists come to create, including the legendary Bronx graffiti ensemble Tats Cru. Photo ET Rodriguez

During my years as a writer, collector and observer of the culture, I learned the city like the back of my own hands leaving my stretch of home in the South Bronx at all times of the night. I was 14.

My life coaches, growing up, were seasoned men and women of the streets: hustlers, addicts, prostitutes and finally, those “vandals” who painted their stories on concrete and metal finding spots so far up (apartment rooftops) and so hidden (inside subway tunnels) that the fact that their work exists, at all, in those coveted spots, is a testament to the passion and determination to “get up and stay up” that defines every single graffiti writer, alive, dead or aspiring. It’s that simple.

In the beginning, I was a “toy” which means I didn’t know much at all, and people would make fun of my lettering. Some people stay toys forever but I was fortunate enough to be introduced to big bro, BG183, and I realized that there were real artists out here and that’s what I wanted to become, what I wanted to represent so I practiced.

Richard Rodriguez stands alongside a piece painted by the Tats Cru in the South Bronx. Photo Lapacazo Sandoval

I practiced my bubble lettering, fill-ins, how to hold a spray can so I don’t drip, and how to use that same can to get the perfect drip. That’s the thing most people don’t know — it takes a lot of practice, to be a “vandal” and it’s competitive. I’ve bled for this art many times, the most memorable was when a swinging baseball bat connected to my head. I was sewed first with thick, black string and then 13 staples were used to fold back the thick, fleshy meat of my very hard skull, and every time the apparatus closed, it sounded like gunshots. I don’t recall why there was an altercation that night — a beef real or imagined — but my scars are forever.

Recently, a Bronx police officer asked me a pointed question and one I had to ponder myself. What he wanted to know was why he and his fellow vandal squad officers were scooping up graffiti writers in their late 40s and older. How could I explain to him that the need to get up — it seems —doesn’t have an expiration date? But I shrugged my shoulders. I stayed silent as I admired a fresh throw-up sprawled on the wall in front of me.

The next installment of “Married to the Game” will feature graffiti artist BG 183.

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