As one of graffiti art’s all time masters of style, TERRIBLE T-KID’s profound artistry, elaborate lettering schemes and trademark illustration techniques continue to inspire graffiti writers around the globe over three decades since the NYC legend first put marker to steel in his Bronx neighborhood back in 1974. Originally initiated into graffiti as an extension of gang culture, T-KID would later earn his stripes in NYC’s burgeoning subway art movement, producing countless whole cars, top to bottoms and burners primarily on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 lines in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s. Running with his crew The Vamp Squad, T-KID would also become one of New York’s most feared writers of the time.
The Vamp Squad became infamous for regularly robbing other writers and engaging in a variety of criminal acts. “The Vamp Squad was notorious, man. So that’s where the term wildin’ came from, yea. ‘Cause we used to do that, we used to run like a wolf pack and just fuck everybody up”, explains T-KID rather lightheartedly reflecting on his past involvement in street life over two and a half decades ago. By the mid ‘80’s the fast life had taken its toll and like many other writers, T-KID fell out of the graff scene. But unlike some, he would make an incredible comeback starting in the mid-nineties and continuing all the way up to the present. Taking his already prolific skills to an even higher level, T-KID would participate in the creation of countless murals around New York City as well as travel around the world as one of NYC’s most admired aerosol art ambassadors.
In 2005 T-KID published his official autobiography The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170. An uncensored account chronicling everything from his early childhood, his involvement with gang life, a battle with substance abuse and a life-long passion for art, The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170 is an absolute must read for all graffiti and Hip-Hop aficionados alike. Featured prominently in the new Jon Reiss directed global graffiti documentary Bomb It, T-KID once again shows that he is never one to bite his tongue, always telling it like it is down to the very last detail. In a recent interview we caught up with the graff icon to talk about everything from subway art, The Vamp Squad, a new generation of stencil street artists and much more. Knowledge is power, so don’t sleep!
RIOTSOUND.COM: Going back to the very beginning, how did you originally get into graff?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Originally I got into graffiti through gangs. I used to play in this park and I actually used to do tricks on the swings, I was really athletic or acrobatic [laughs]… so I was doing tricks and we won a battle one time and I was so happy – I used to write KING 13 – so I was walking up the block and tagging my name everywhere I could and I landed on this bodega icebox and that’s when I got approached by three gang members from this gang called The Enchanters. They tapped me on my shoulder and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They told me I was tagging on their turf and, you know, I wasn’t supposed to do that; I didn’t even know what turf was and they explained it to me. Then they said – hey, listen pal, we know who you are, we’ve seen you do your thing on the swings over there, we like that, we think you’re cool but you’re tagging on our turf nonetheless. So they said – you can keep writing your name but you got to join the gang and tag up the gang [also] – which was The Bronx Enchanters – or, we’re going to beat you up. So I was like – yo, where do I sign, man?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: So that’s how I got into graffiti. But I didn’t really take it serious [at first], I was just doing neighborhood bombing and getting the gang up and marking the turf and territory and all that stuff. More or less I got more and more involved with gangs. I [ended up] leaving that gang and going to another gang and I changed my name from KING 13 to SEN 102. I joined The Renegades of Harlem and then [later on] I ended up getting into an altercation in the Bronx where I got shot. I was hanging out with The Renegades of Harlem and was tagging with DANKO, SMOKEY, DIAMOND DAVE, GREEN EYED MIKE, and I was tagging on the trains with them, they were showing me more or less the ins and outs of tagging.
Then after that I went up to the Bronx and ended up getting into a shootout at Crotona Park and I got shot. And while I was in the hospital I saw a lot of stuff. The minute I got out of the ICU [intensive care unit] my brother showed up at the hospital. I was arrested, handcuffed to the bed and my brother showed up with markers and drawing paper and that’s when I came up with the name T-KID. It was a combination of what [people] used to call me. I was tall and skinny and the guys used to say – look, he looks like a big T! So they used to call me Big T. Being that I was so tall I used to hang with the older kids, all the gang members were always older than me and they would call me “kid”. Like – hey, get the kid to go steal the beer, get the kid to go rack up – you know, shit like that [laughs]. And I was writing those names, KID and BIG T, doing bubble letters and stuff with the drawing paper while I was handcuffed to the bed with my brother there and a cop out in the front. And I saw [the name] BIG T KID, and I says, wow I like that, T-KID.
So as I’m in the hospital and as some time passed, not one of my buddies from the gang came to see me, nobody. So I realized, you know what, fuck this gang shit, to heck with this, I’m just going to devote myself to graffiti. And when I came out I hooked up with this kid PESER in Yonkers and we started hitting the 1 line, started killing it. I did that all the way up to 1985, ’86 and that’s when this whole art media explosion happened and the Hip-Hop thing started [getting a lot of attention]. People started looking at graffiti as stuff to put in the galleries. So I started hanging out in the galleries and pretty much robbing people left and right [laughs]. I got addicted to cocaine through these art people in these galleries and that’s how I ended up in jail. In ’91 is when I got locked up, I got out just before ’92, got myself clean and got myself together.
I used that time when I was locked up to just perfect my skills, ‘cause mind you, from ’86 on I had pretty much dropped out of the scene because I was addicted to cocaine, also I had a family, I was bugging out and I was going through all kinds of changes in my life. In late ’91 I came back with the help of my man PER, he told me – yo T, you got talent, you gotta keep painting, let’s paint. So he got me to paint again and I came back stronger and better than ever. To this day I’m still painting. In fact, I just got rid of a canvas that went at auction for like $30,000. So, you know, [I’m still doing it].
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as graffiti and aerosol art goes, you are widely considered to be one of the all time masters of style. Your lettering schemes and illustration techniques have come to be renowned and many people admire your work specifically because of those elements. In terms of how you rank your own personal achievements in the subway art and graffiti movement, is the standard that your artistry has something that you rank towards the top, or are there other things that may be just as important, such as getting up or other aspects?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Well at first, when it was all about being illegal and stuff, it was all about getting up. That was the most important thing. When I was being the rebel that I was it was about me putting my name out there and letting people know who I am. And not only did I do that, get up a lot, I also got quite the reputation for being a motherfucker [laughs]. You know, robbing other graffiti writers, taking their paints and just pretty much protecting my yard. Anybody that came to the Ghost yard I would pretty much beat up and throw them out. So I got that [rep]. And at that time that was important to me.
Then later on in life you start painting walls, they took the trains away from us, so in the ‘90’s it was about the walls and I really perfected my letter style and my techniques and my schemes and my compositions and everything like that. I’m one of the few graffiti writers that always kept an open mind. You talk to all the old school graffiti writers and they don’t like none of the new writers, they have no respect for them, they don’t even think of them as graffiti writers or whatever. What I did was, I’m a realist, I was like, yo dude, these guys are new and they’re fresh and they got fresh ideas. So I [I am open] to what the new writers do; like everything else, graffiti progresses. The style of letters has evolved from when PHASE was doing bubble letters to what we do nowadays. Now there’s three dimensional things and all kinds of letters that are flowing with all kinds of stuff in them.
RIOTSOUND.COM: In the new film Bomb It you are very adamant about New York City’s quality of life laws and you have some very harsh words for politicians who think that by banning street art they are somehow improving the quality of people’s lives.
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Yea, that’s bullshit man, these politicians with the “equality of life”. The bottom line is it’s all about money and that’s what they’re there for. I have yet to see a politician who’s kept his word and improved anybody’s life. Ok, to me, if you’re rich, you don’t need to improve your life any more. If you’re poor that’s when you need to improve your life. These politicians don’t look at it that way. They look at it like – look, let’s get these people who have the money and let’s clean everything up for them so they can be happy and they can feel good about themselves, let’s not worry so much about the run down areas in New York City – such as East New York, such as Brownsville, such as the South Bronx. They trying, they trying, but what are they trying? They trying to gentrify [the neighborhoods]. They not tying to clean up the place for the people, no, they trying to clean it up for the money.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Yea, and move the people out…
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Yea, and move people out, exactly, exactly. They not doing nothing for nobody, they doing it for themselves and for more money and for the rich people. That’s how I view it, that’s how I see it and I’ve yet to see anything different. You’re telling me you’re cleaning up this place because you want to build a shopping center? God damn it, we got a hundred million shopping centers, what do we need another one for? And you’re arresting me for putting a little marker tag on a mailbox, yet that pothole that I’ve been hitting with my car fifty thousand times for the last couple of years on my street has not yet been fixed. C’mon, what’s the deal with that, you know? C’mon, please, it’s ridiculous.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Another thing I want to touch on from your earlier years in the scene is your street credentials. You were at one time one of the most feared writers in New York City and part of the infamous Vamp Squad, a crew the would often rob other writers and wreak havoc in the streets. How did the crew initially come together and what were some of the typical activities The Vamp Squad would engage in?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: The Vamp Squad started up in Yonkers in late 1979 or 1980, I don’t remember exactly if it was ’79 around October or if it was ’80 around October. But nonetheless it started in Yonkers and I started it. It was me, MIKE DUST, my brother CRAZY 505 and SHOCK 123. MIKE DUST was the one who came up with the word “Vamp”. He came up to us one day while we were smoking and he goes – yo! I just vamped this guy! [laughs] And I looked at him like – yo, vamp? what the hell [does that mean]? So he goes – you know, like a vampire! And he puts his arm over his nose, you know, like Dracula would do with the hood. He goes – yo, I just yoked this dude like that and I vamped him like a vampire! I was like, oh man, that’s funny. And you know, I always had that gang mentality thing in me and one crew that I was really admiring at the time was The Death Squad, TDS, I just liked that name. So I was like – yo dude! let's start a crew and let’s call it The Vamp Squad [laughs] and lets rob everybody. And it was a joke at first but as it turns out these guys SHOCK and MIKE, they were ill dudes and I was a little ill too. So I started all that craziness and that’s how we started robbing everybody. We were just angry kids, man. We were angry at the world and that’s how The Vamp Squad [came to be].
Now let me tell you, a typical day with us would start whenever the hell we woke up; and I can tell you about one day in particular. One morning we woke up around 6 or 7 in the morning. The day started early in that morning in front of St. James Park. Some guy driving an oil truck came to buy weed and we were also looking for weed at that time. So we were in front of this little park building trying to see where the fuck the drug dealers are, and of course they’re not there. So this guy comes up to us and says – yo, you guys got weed? And we’re like – yea, come right here. So we robbed him, we took him for about three or four hundred dollars.
Then we run to the back of the park and there’s this dude walking and it happened to be one of my friend’s boys from jail, his name was Tyrone. And he was also going to cop some weed and he knew somebody that sold weed in a building by there. So right after we robbed the first guy we run into [Tyrone] and he takes us into this building and we end up robbing the weed dealer that he was copping weed from. So we had our weed for the day. So did it stop there? Of course not. We ran downstairs, went to the Grand Concourse, hopped into a cab, took it to Dykeman [Street] and ran out the cab. Then we tried to steal a car up there by Fort Tryon Park and of course somebody called the cops, and I seen the cops running so we ran into Fort Tryon Park, which is on the west side [of Manhattan] by the Hudson river. We end up getting to the train tracks and following the train tracks all the way down to like 155th Street. When we popped out, we’re on the streets and we’re by Broadway and we see a yellow cab guy pull in and [the cabbie] switches [shifts] with this other guy. One guy gets in and the other guy gets out with a box. So we robbed him, he had another hundred and something dollars in the box. Now this is all in one day dude. This is The Vamp Squad, alright.
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: So we rob the cab driver and to make a long story short, we saw cops and the cops saw us, so we run into the number 1 train station right there on Broadway. There was a train coming into the station on the uptown side and a train coming on the downtown side but not in the station yet. So we’re on the downtown side and we jump in front of that train, cross the tracks and miss both trains by I don’t know how much and get into the uptown train. On the uptown train, the next stop is like 175th Street and in between [the two train stops] we knew there was an emergency staircase that goes up [to the street]. So we jumped off that train [laughs]…
RIOTSOUND.COM: So you guys jumped off the train from in between the cars?!
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: No, no, lemme show you, we had [transit system] keys, we just opened up the back door of the train and just jumped out. We used to have the keys to open up the doors. So we jumped out because we knew the cops were looking for us and they were going to be at the next station. So the train was going nice and slow and we were like – yo, we gotta get off this train. Being that we knew all the tunnels, we knew there was an emergency exit between the two stations. And sure enough we found it, we went up and we ended up on the street. We got into another cab and took it back to the Bronx and ran out of that motherfucker around 149th Street. Then we hopped on the 4 train and took it downtown by Central Park. And mind you, it’s not even freakin’ 11 o’clock in the morning yet.
So we end up in Central Park and we rob a couple of drug dealers. Then we went down to 42nd Street, this is when all the porno [theaters] was there. We ran into some theater there on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, threw some guy off the balcony ‘cause he was jerking off next to us. Then ran down to the basement and there was a bunch of homos down there. We ended up vicin’ them, taking their money, then we ran up 8th Avenue and ended up in a restaurant, got a meal and just ran out. And that’s when we [went our separate ways] because by that point too many cops were looking for us. And that’s also how “wildin’” started, by the way. Remember that shit, wildin’? You know, when a gang of kids used to just run [and wreak havoc]…
RIOTSOUND.COM: You mean the actual term “wildin’”?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Yea, that’s how that started, by The Vamp Squad and the shit we used to do.
RIOTSOUND.COM: So the term “wildin’” originated from the activities of The Vamp Squad?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Yea, people heard of what we would do [and that’s how they described it]. The Vamp Squad was notorious, man. So that’s where the term wildin’ came from, yea. ‘Cause we used to do that, we used to run like a wolf pack and just fuck everybody up.
RIOTSOUND.COM: So how many years was The Vamp Squad active for in NYC?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: That lasted for me from about ’80 until the middle of ’81 when I said, you know, enough is enough. It was just too much. The worst part was when I saw these guys actually rob some girls and some old people and that’s when I said, enough.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Nowadays as far as street art goes there is a lot more stenciling type stuff going on plus there are people who draw something at home and then go out and glue it on a wall; do you personally respect some of these new trends that are taking place?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Once again, I would say it’s something that’s evolved and that’s evolving. It’s a thing that I feel Keith Haring started back in the days. Let’s take Keith Haring for instance, he wasn’t a graffiti writer, but he was a hell of a pop artist! And he sure did know how to fuckin’ jump into the graffiti thing and make his mark. He wasn’t a graffiti artist, but, he was a street artist, see there’s a difference. When these guys are doing their stuff, they go home and they cut out their things and put it onto wood and nail it onto a pole or a building or something, you know, I’ve seen a lot of that stuff. If you’re doing it illegally, I gotta say man, you got balls. You’re up there. You might not be going into a train yard but you’re doing something that you can get caught in and the outcome is gonna be the same, you’re going to go to jail and you’re going to be tried as a graffiti artist. So to me it’s almost the same.
Now as far as people in the art world thinking of these guys such as BANKSY and the rest of them, with these stencils and all this stuff, as artists that command $100,000 a painting, I think that’s ridiculous. I think that the art world is insane. It’s insane to think that because, come one, I could go cut out a stencil and start pasting it everywhere, what does that mean? Nothing. It just means I cut out a stencil. Is it worth $100,000? Boy, man, you gotta be nuts [to pay that].
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: I mean, some of the ideas that they come up with are great and fabulous and it’s really eye catching, but how long can you keep on coming up with such ideas when you’re doing a stencil as opposed to creating [original] letters or really putting your heart and soul into a canvas. Every time I paint a canvas I put my heart and soul into it.
RIOTSOUND.COM: In recent years you’ve done a lot of breathtaking murals all around New York City. For anyone reading this that wants to see some of your work, where in the city should they go?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: They could come to the Bronx, we got a mural there by Yankees Stadium, we call it The Yankee Mural. If you go to Hunt’s Point [in the Bronx] we got murals there, Green Point, Brooklyn, I got a bunch of murals there as well. So Green Point, South Bronx, North Bronx, Manhattan, Harlem Graffiti Hall of Fame, so there’s a couple of places that you could see my work. And not only that, if you really want to see my work just type in “T-KID” into any search engine and you’ll see what pops up.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Right now, what are you focused on and what are some of the things you’ve been working on?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Right now, believe it or not, what I’m doing is, I’m recreating on canvas trains that I painted back in days. I just reproduce on canvas the complete train and everything; my pieces on trains that I did, like the “Heart Attack” car which appeared in the [book] Subway Art, also the “Children of Production” car, which is in my book [The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170 (2005)] as well as a couple of other books; and also a couple of other trains that I did back in the days. I’m actually reproducing the [train pieces] the exact same way with even the garbage graffiti around it from the other pieces that were underneath. So, I’m recreating that and just showing like a retrospective of that time so when people see this work they could see what it was like. ‘Cause you see these pieces and they’re so strong, they look just like the trains to begin with and then to see the graffiti on it.
It was an idea that I got when I was doing the Marc Ecko block party for the Getting Up video game. He [created] reproductions of the trains and had us do graffiti on them. I was like – you know what, maybe that’s what I should do is paint trains [on canvas] and redo what I did back in the days. And so far, as I mentioned, one of them just sold for $30,000 and another one just went up for auction. They’re huge canvases, they’re approximately 12 feet long by 8 feet high, so they’re pretty big and you see the exact reproduction of the train [and the piece on it]. Same colors, same everything, the exact same way I did it. And people are really feeling that right now.
RIOTSOUND.COM: For anybody reading this that admires you as an artist and may be an up and coming graffiti artist themselves, what advice would you give that person?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Well, for an up and coming artist that wants to do graffiti and they want to do it illegally, first of all they gotta realize they gotta know the law because laws have changed and the city or any government is taking it really serious now and they want to try you like a fucking terrorist. So you really gotta think long and hard as far as what you want to do. And then prepare yourself basically. If you get caught keep your mouth shut. That’s all you gotta do, just keep your mouth shut and get a lawyer, that’s my advice to everybody if you get caught. Better than that, if you don’t have to do it, don’t do it, you don’t need to do it. All these guys are establishing that you don’t have to do illegal things to become rich and famous, people like BANKSY and all these stencil guys, OBEY and all those cats. They don’t do anything really illegal. I mean, yea, here and there but that’s not really taking a big chance, not like going out there and getting hit by a freakin’ 30 ton train [laughs], or stepping on the third rail and getting electrocuted.
The risks were high when we used to do it. Not only did you have to battle the natural elements in these tunnels such as trains hitting you and the cops and third rails and all that shit, you also had other graffiti writers that wanted to fuck you up and beat your ass and take your paint. It was really dangerous. Nowadays you just sneak around on a wall, if you run you can get away ‘cause you got so many different ways to go. [That’s not how it is] in a train yard, you gotta be fuckin’ savvy, fast and fuckin’ have balls. But my advice is, it’s [probably smarter] to stay doing legal shit, and if you choose to do illegal shit just keep your mouth shut when you get caught ‘cause I guarantee you that if you do it a lot you will get caught. Ask any of these big time bombers if they got caught and they’re going to tell you, yes. Look at these guys right now, ACC Crew, DRO and all those guys man, they getting ready to do time and shit for tagging and being all city bombers and shit.
RIOTSOUND.COM: That’s just crazy that they can lock you up for that, like we don’t have any more serious crime to address besides someone painting on a wall?
TERRIBLE T-KID 170: Yea man, that’s what they’re trying to do.
Be sure to catch T-KID in the new global graffiti documentary Bomb It, directed by Jon Reiss.