Pop artist Charles Fazzino and three of the Bronx-based legendary grafitti collective TATS Cru – Bio, BG 183 and Nicer – all look at each other and grin. They’re all in agreement. Were the 1970s the quintessential period for downtown Manhattan creativity? Between pop art, graffiti, punk rock, disco, hip hop, no wave, Warhol, Basquiat, Patti Smith, The Ramones and so on and so forth; of course it was.
“Growing up [art] was the outlet,” says Bio. “There was so much devastation around you; abandoned buildings, the city was in financial trouble. Those conditions made it an outlet for people, whether it was art, the dance, the music. That’s how people coped with the situation. Making something positive out of a bleak environment.”
It is this bleak and creatively fertile time period in Manhattan that is celebrated and depicted in the unprecedented collaboration between Fazzino and the grafitti crew. Named after the Lovin’ Spoonful song, “Summer in the City,” their collaborative piece is a Fazzino-styled 3D rendering of 1970s Manhattan.
The relationship between Fazzino and the crew is lighthearted and sincere; in the year that it took to complete the project they formed a genuine friendship. Fazzino, standing at a towering stature and draped in more traditionally artsy clothing — a button down, black shirt, and black slacks — obviously comes from a different side of the artistic spectrum than the loose fittings jeans and tee-shirt-clad men of TATS. Prior to the onset of the project however, the TATS men didn’t know Fazzino by name, but they knew his work.
“When we first heard the pitch for the project we weren’t really sure who Charles was,” says BG183. “But then we walked in the studio and we were like, ‘Oh damn we know this work.’ The fit was really good with the color and the way his work pops out at you.”
Aside from the similar choices in extreme color contrasting, Fazzino and TATS share the Bronx; Fazzino having been born in the borough and the TATS men having lived there all their lives. “People from the Bronx all seem to identify with each other through that commonality,” says Fazzino.
The TATS guys were as excited to learn a new style of art — cut outs and 3D canvas — from one of the masters as they were to be a part of recreating the New York they grew up in. “The first thing I saw of [Fazzino’s] was the baseball stuff and I was just blown away,” says BG. “But I had no idea how to do it, so to be able to do this 3D work is like the best thing in the world right now.”
Fazzino gradually converted into an ardent admirer of graffiti work, but he wasn’t always positive that he truly admired the form. He didn’t become a true believer in graf until he was introduced to it by a fellow student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in the early ’70s. “At first I wasn’t sure,” says Fazzino concerning his initial reaction towards the tags he saw littered throughout New York. “But one tag artist who really got famous and is now in all the visual art museums was Keith Haring, who went to school with me, who started in graffiti but grew to do work that was really spectacular. Guys like him and Kenny Scharf provide perfect examples of people that did illegal work to doing stuff that’s now in all the art museums just like the TATS CRU.”
Robert Vasquez, a mutual friend of Fazzino and TATS, pitched the idea for years to his buddy Charles having been a longtime fan of TATS, graffiti and hip hop culture. “Growing up in the Bronx,” he says, “my museum was the streets. I thought a collaboration between these guys would be amazing.”
Vasquez’s conviction proved spot on. The final product of “Hot Town: Summer in the City” is indicative of Fazzino’s style; a large 3D cityscape made of cut out individual pieces popping out of the canvas, but with some long forgotten buildings of the 1970s as well as movie posters and other water marks of the decade. While looking at the piece, the left of the canvas shows north Manhattan, or Harlem, and from left to right the piece makes its way downtown. People wear bell bottoms and sport afros. Movie posters advertise New York-centric examples of classic 1970s cinema including Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico,” two directors that are also proud New Yorkers. At the bottom of the piece is where the TATS guys came in, recreating the graffiti-riddled subway cars of the ’70s. Bio, BG, and Nicer applied their signature tags to the trains harkening back to the decade when the subways of Manhattan resembled fringe art museums.
The project is unique amongst Fazzino’s body of work though it stands less an outlier than one would initially think. Along with the high profile media events he’s created artwork for including Super Bowls, MLB All Star Games, Daytime Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards and more, he’s best known for his 3D city scapes. However, he generally only creates cities as they are in the moment. “Hot Town: Summer in the City” is his first project that recreates a city’s appearance in the past. Despite this fact, the project hardly represents Fazzino’s sole dabbling in nostalgia.
“A lot of my work is about nostalgia,” says Fazzino. “Many times I like to create things past and things that have happened in the past and document it in my art work. I thought it’d be really cool to bring back everything that the 1970s was famous for in New York; hotels that don’t exist, restaurants that don’t exist, and landmarks that have changed or changed names.”
Along with the buildings and landmarks, like the PanAm Building and the Essex House, the fallen World Trade Center Twin Towers are clearly depicted towards the right, or Manhattan’s south, eerily reminding us New Yorkers especially and Americans all of the tragedy of 9/11. Recreating the towers proved a special undertaking for Fazzino.
“This was such a cool project to work on because since the World Trade Center catastrophe this is the first piece I’ve created that features the towers in it,” he says.
The choice of buildings featured in the piece had as much to do with the artists’ personal affections and memories as historical reference, “I remember walking around the city and going to eat at Howard Johnson’s,” says Fazzino.
Fazzino and the TATS CRU come from very different aspects of the art world, but those aspects nonetheless share similar histories of striving to be taken seriously amongst high art circles. In the 1970s pop art, with its employment of images yanked from advertising and mass media, was often scoffed at amongst serious art critics, even with Andy Warhol’s fame at its peak. Graffiti was even less revered. Considered ugly, delinquent and criminal to anyone the least bit removed from the fringes of downtown Manhattan’s drug-fueled and debauched art scene, it seemed impossible at the time that graffiti would ever be considered something a museum ackowledged.
Flash-forward to now, both of these forms are in museums and quite profitable. The growing acceptance of these two forms of art stands in as a metaphor for the gentrification of Manhattan, where the downtown art that once stood on the fringe is now accepted by the wealthier classes of New Yorkers, just as the downtown real estate is inhabited by the upper class. “I definitely think so,” says Fazzino agreeing with this suggestion. “I feel that this project also has great appeal to whose who are younger and didn’t get to experience [that era of New York] where as we all did.”
The artists involved all feel that aspects of themselves and their personal histories come across in the piece despite the fact that it’s a collaboration, and that in a sense is what makes the final product so immensely special. The project is a time machine transporting you to a bygone era of the world’s biggest and craziest city through the eyes of artists who were there contributing to what made that era so incredible in the first place. “There was always a guy dropping his drawers in the subway,” says Fazzino in reference to a male character flashing his penis in the subway portion of the piece and to rousing laughter among the crew. “It’s all those little nuances that make this piece special.”
“Everything you see in there and you know exactly what’s what,” says Nicer. “The flasher in the subway, the tags in the subway, a lot of this stuff isn’t even there anymore. So you can say this piece is very personal to us because we all live and have lived in New York.”
All four of the artists pinpoint their favorite individual flourishes of the final piece.
“Well if you ask nicely I’d probably have to go with the stripper,” says Bio.
“The grafitti on the train man,” says BG without any shred of doubt. “But also that Howard Johnson’s, they used to have the best ice cream soda.”
“I miss Tavern on the Green,” says Fazzino. “It used to be a nice place to go there with the family. Lots of these things have disappeared and it’s nice to look back on them.”
Finally, Nicer longs for the 1970s fashion sense seen amongst the cut out people walking through the three dimensional streets of the piece, “I miss the clothing,” he says. “Look at all those bell bottoms and afros.”
Whether or not New York still fosters the emerging talents of today’s young artists, writers and musicians isn’t addressed in this piece, but “Hot Town: Summer in the City” transports you to the 1970s of New York City, an era where New York-based artists suffered, hustled and changed the course of artistic history.