Uncapped: NIC ONE on Graffiti, Hip Hop, and the Art of Photography
Uncapped Readers, Happy Holidaze. Today, we are proud to welcome graffiti pioneer NIC ONE!
NIC is a South Bronx native who cut his teeth on the streets. His life’s work has appeared on various television shows and in graffiti videos over the years, including The Eleventh Hour Show (PBS, 1990), In The Mix show (PBS, 1993). YO! MTV RAPS (MTV, 1992), and Videograf Productions, the first video graffiti magazine about the New York and L.A. scenes, where he also worked as a production assistant. VH1 also honored him in their 2005 Hip Hop Honors.
(Because NIC ONE is a photographer, we included many photos. Do not distribute without permission and proper credit.)
BOWERY BOOGIE: Welcome, Sir. Happy to have you. Tell us how you got into graffiti.
NIC ONE: My introduction started back when I was a very, very young kid around seven or eight. I lived on 3rd Avenue and Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. The 3rd Avenue El train would run outside of my bedroom window. As a kid seeing those trains, I would pay so much attention, and noticed very early on the writing that was on them. I didn’t know what it was or what it was called. I only remember one name – FDT56. I would get to meet him in 2002 at the first Old Timers Day event that was taking place at 5Pointz. Anyway, one day my uncle noticed me staring out of my room window, with my notebook in my hand and I was trying to draw what I was seeing on the outsides of the trains.
BOWERY BOOGIE: Aw.
NIC ONE: Long story short, he educated me as to what it was and what it was about. Up until that point I really knew nothing. I later found out that it was called “graffiti” and that it was being done by kids and that they were called “graffiti writers.” That was it. It was on, and I was set on my path. It wasn’t until several years later that the name or tag ‘NIC ONE’ was officially taken by me. Where I grew up in the South Bronx, there was graffiti everywhere, not just seeing it on the 3rd Ave El. My aunts would take me around in the Bronx. I was too young to get any spray paint and as for markers, if and when I could, I would steal a marker from the teacher’s desk or get a friend’s older brother to get me a marker. I was 12 at the time (1977) and that was the time when (besides comic books) all I cared about was trying to write my name. Tagging up in my school and other little spots that I would go to with my friends. I started out by myself and over time that was mostly how it was for me. I took on a bombing partner and then a painting partner.
BOWERY BOOGIE: Graffiti kids. So, how did you get into photography? Your bio says that your photographs were published extensively.
NIC ONE: Well, I got into photography when I was 18-years-old. At first, my photo passion was fixated on the subways and the graffiti artwork that was on them. I’ve always had a deep love for the subway movement and how vast it was – there was graffiti running on every line and I just wanted to photograph some of it. So I started out as a graffiti subway documentarian of sorts. Heck, I didn’t even know that was what I was becoming. I had a 35 millimeter film camera and I would rack up or buy my film from certain spots and would go out and take photos of the subway trains. I started on the number one line in Manhattan and bounced back and forth on certain days, between the one line and the number two and five train line up in the Bronx. Photographing as much as I could. By the late ’80s, I was bouncing between the Bronx, Brooklyn and on occasion Manhattan. In 1992, I wanted to do more with myself as a photographer. The graffiti subway movement that I loved, had died off and things weren’t the same.
BOWERY BOOGIE: No lies detected there. Go on.
NIC ONE: So I moved into becoming a hip hop photographer. I started going to clubs and photographing rap artists and working on my portfolio. In 1998, I got put on as a freelance photographer at Vibe Magazine by my good friend Sacha Jenkins. I was published quite a few times and I was covering some really important gigs. I photographed and met a lot of rappers and I had some great times and met a lot of really great people. And If I wasn’t photographing people in the hip hop music industry then I was out and about photographing graffiti walls through out the city.
BOWERY BOOGIE: The rap game has definitely changed right along with graffiti. Do you listen to what’s out there now?
NIC ONE: I listen to underground hip hop and a lot of ’90s hip hop. Wu Tang and A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Mos Def, Acrobatik, J Dilla, Gang Starr. etc. As far as what’s on the radio. I really couldn’t care less. Today’s music is something in it’s own state of being. But it’s nothing to me. It’s full of nothing that I can wrap my brain around. Yeah, I love to hear a dope beat, but when the EMCEE is spitting garbage, mumble I’m like “AHHH HELL NO!” I listen to cats that spit the real ish. That grab you to your soul ish. That ahh got dam ish. Anything else is garbage. OK, maybe I’m being hard or maybe not. I understand that what’s being put out is not going to be for me, or my taste. Everything lacks substance. And I can only hope that things get better. Yeah the game has changed. And I’m just not recognizing it anymore.
BOWERY BOOGIE: Sounds like we have the same taste and that you spit a little fire yourself. Tell us about Videograf and what that did for graffiti.
NIC ONE: Videograf was the first graffiti video magazine, formatted on VHS. It was something for the graffiti writers out there that wanted to see other writers bombing and painting. It also served as a platform for writers to speak and say whatever they felt about the graffiti movement. The videos would showcase some of New York and Los Angeles’ top and talented writers. Mostly featuring lots of writers from the New York City area, Videograf was created by Carl Weston in 1988 and with the help of his friend, Colin Turner, they were looking to start something fresh and new. In 1989, I came aboard and started producing what we called “Writers Segments” where each top writer would be featured in their very own interviewed segment. At that time there was nothing else out there like it. There was nothing for graffiti writers to watch and get excited about. If you were lucky and had a copy of Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant, that was your only type of excitement and since it was the late ’80s, writers had started to see it as a bit dated. What Carl realized was that the writers of the late ’80s wanted to see the writers from their time. No diss to the writers in Style Wars, but writers just wanted to see “Who’s Up Now!” I also served as principal photographer of Videograf Productions. My subway train and graffiti wall photos would appear in some of the early issues of Videograf and mostly my wall photos by the later issues.
Videograf did so much for the graffiti movement, in so many ways. It helped writers to want to go out and get their names up, by getting them excited when they would see other writers that they admired or looked up to, or even hated. I think that when you can give something that’s powerful to a whole group of people, borough to borough, state to state or wherever else they might be and they, in turn, help move that particular movement.
BOWERY BOOGIE: Much respect for being part of the forefathers of graffiti preservation and documentation. Do you consider yourself a bomber or a piecer?
NIC ONE: Today and in this time of my life, I simply consider myself as a piecer, period. A long time ago I was a bomber, that’s how I started out. Bombing school yards, walls, parks, park bathrooms, mailboxes, little spots here and there. When I was coming up into the graffiti game, that was how you started. The thing is, as I started to get better at piecing, I would street bomb less. I still kept working on my throw-ups and my hand styles as I wasn’t trying to be a writer without a dope hand style and a kool throw up. Today I’m proud to say that I can still put it down, with a sweet hand style and a kool throw up, if I have to. I never lost a step in that department. But now I’m just about painting dope pieces and having fun with what I’m doing. Painting with my crew, Aerosol Kings and some of the old and young cats out there. Life is too short to not be doing what you love to do, so I’m going to continue to paint and live, until I can’t do it no more.
BOWERY BOOGIE: So true. What drew the likes of VH1 and MTV to your art? Was there one piece in particular?
NIC ONE: What got VH1’s eye about me was all of the work that I had been doing at 5Pointz. I was the co-curator of the building from 2002 to 2006 = FACTS.
BOWERY BOOGIE: You state “FACTS” as though your involvement with 5Pointz is disputed by people?
NIC ONE: I say that because there is a whole lot of people that are oblivious to any of my early contributions to 5Pointz. A lot of writers, old and new, came around after September 2006, when I was no longer connected with 5Pointz. There were also a lot of people and writers that knew me and of my contributions to the place, that were considered in the know. But once I was no longer around, people questioned and wondered what’s up. Over time they made a Wikipedia page with no acknowledgement of me or any of my early contributions. When you dissolve someone, from the history in which they helped play an important role, you’re sending a strong message. So when the subject of 5Pointz comes up, I tend to phrase things by simply saying “Facts.” These days it’s all good. I have nothing but respect for it all and those people that were involved.