A few years ago I was sitting with a girl in a grimy bar in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. She was looking at a framed photo that was hanging on the wall, a black and white image of a city street, wondering where it was taken. To me, it was obvious – it was clearly New York City. There weren’t any yellow cabs, or the familiar façades of Fifth Avenue, but there was a massive KATSU extinguisher tag in the frame. “I’m pretty conscious of what I’m doing and I think a lot about it,” explains Katsu over an anonymous phone connection that’s been re-routed via a third party. “As much as I’m a fan-child of graffiti subculture, I’m always trying to understand what’s really going on.”
First and foremost, Katsu is a bomber. Which, as he explains, means “that your graffiti truly represents the criminal act of vandalism.” He continues: “There should be no confusion by the public as to whether you’re trying to install a piece of artwork or deface property.” It’s a bold attitude, and one that’s hated by authorities but lauded by the outcasts, the marginalised, and the bored – exactly the groups that are drawn to pick up a spraycan and start marking property in the first place. It’s 2013, and graffiti culture is, to a certain extent, at a crossroads. Since the mid-2000s, we’ve seen an explosion of interest from the general public when it comes to street art, which has had the effect of drawing traditional (where traditional means letter-based) graffiti back into the mainstream’s eye.
It’s an era where graff writers who’ve been known in the subculture for decades in relative anonymity are now being shown in major art institutions, and are enjoying profitable careers. Certain graffiti crews’ names have become commodities in and of themselves, and, for better or worse, the subculture has become a fixture of the public domain. In May of 1974 the great American novelist Norman Mailer published ‘The Faith of Graffiti’ in Esquire magazine – a compelling essay on the emerging phenomenon of subway graffiti and the kids who risked their safety and freedom to paint trains for no material reward. In 2013, graffiti is used by every major corporation or brand looking to market a product to a youth audience. The legacy of those teenagers who painted New York’s transit system can be purchased from the shelves of supermarkets all around the world. For galleries, and the writers who choose to align themselves with the commercial art world – it’s a boom-time of sorts. For Katsu and his ilk, that’s not an option.
That’s not to say that Katsu’s work isn’t of intrinsic worth, it just operates outside of the traditional value systems championed by society. “The bomber lifestyle is also one of liberation and freedom,” he tells me. Therefore, a true bomber can’t exist within an infrastructure that also encompasses the gallery and corporate systems that validate and reward graffiti writers who are willing to bend to their needs. It’s not that street level graffiti isn’t worth the attention of institutions; it’s that the writers steadfastly refuse to participate in that dialogue and instead consciously decide to live their lives removed from that framework. Or, as Katsu puts it to me, it’s about “looking around you and realising that the world is fucked and that bombing is good. Crime is good.” It’s a defiant resolve that’s valued by those who share his dedication, but for an outsider there’s a deeply ingrained hostility intrinsic in the actions of those that devote their time and effort to living outside the law.
Katsu’s style of graffiti is in keeping with this attitude. His street spots are bold, blunt, and quickly executed. His tags and throws are legible, and designed for maximum impact and clarity on the street. We’re not talking about murals made up of hundreds of pretty colours that the general public can appreciate – this is a visceral manifestation of crime, a scar on the surface of the city. If he’s not writing his name, he’s leaving his one-line skull. “I loved how cannibals would decorate their territory with human skulls on sticks. I thought it would give some meaning to my destruction,” he explains. As a graphic signifier it’s as easily identifiable as any iconic brand’s logo.
In the same vein, its size can be adapted for any spot. In a short YouTube video titled The Powers of Katsu, we see the scale application of the skull signature gradually progress from 1/20th of an inch (small enough to fit on a single grain of rice) to a massive 120-foot throwup on a city rooftop. If Katsu’s tag is a logo, the irony of subverting traditional means of marketing isn’t lost on him. “How do they say it in the marketing world?” he asks me rhetorically. “Impressions. You’re paying for impressions. Going out and doing a tag on the corner of a wall, if we’re talking about impressions, is maybe the most intelligent fucking thing that you can do.” Considering that he is most active in a city that houses 8.2 million people, where every inch of public space is a commodity, I can see his point.
Katsu stands alongside the Big Time Mob, the notorious graffiti crew whose members have been active in numerous cities worldwide for several decades. His fellow members of the BTM crew practice the same unwavering dedication to living their lives outside of conventional structures. Katsu refers to it as a “timeless fraternal code” that concerns itself with “respect, crime, invention, money, death, friendship, love and pain.” Hyperbole aside, there’s no doubt that in the contemporary graffiti scene, BTM command respect – both for the brazenness of their actions, and their street presence worldwide. “A lot of the time we’re all painting separate from each other, and it’s not very organised,” Katsu explains. That distance between crewmates like Lewy, Adek, and Malvo provides the basis for competition. “In a weird way, we’re all kind of painting to one-up each other,” Katsu muses.
There are similarities between a graffiti writer’s personal devotion to bucking the system, to those operating in other outlaw or fringe cultures – a pattern that Katsu recognises. Speaking on his introduction to graffiti he tells me “Underneath everything I was fascinated with crime and hacking.” In its elemental form graffiti is about overcoming or surmounting restrictions that an individual deems arbitrary or irrelevant. A tag, the blight of the socially-conservative urbanite, is a physical affirmation of existence. A permanent reminder that someone got in, got around, got over, and got up in that specific location. That is, until the buff gets there. It’s about patently saying “Fuck you” and “I exist” – at the same time. It’s an invitation to engage, but only if you speak the language. “I’ve always had a curiosity to invent and disrupt spaces,” Katsu discloses.
That attitude extends to the rest of his life – including his racking practice. Like most committed graffiti writers, Katsu is a serial racker. “Paint should never be purchased, in fact you should become obsessed with stealing it,” he tells me. Again, it comes down to defeating systems and Katsu seems to genuinely love navigating retail spaces. “Racking is a really exciting, invigorating activity. It’s like rock climbing or something,” he considers. For Katsu, it’s an “ongoing conversation, it’s a work of art, racking is just as much of an expression as graffiti.”
In many ways, at least it seems to me, the petty crimes he commits are a physical manifestation of a much larger, all-encompassing philosophy. “It’s really interesting to push yourself physically and mentally to try and map a city,” he tells me. The physicality of painting means roaming the streets in a manner that many day-to-day citizens would never conceive of, and the intimate knowledge of the city structure fosters a deeper understanding of societal fabric. “To understand how much of a city space you can transgress and break through” is the goal, as Katsu explains, but that act also allows for an appreciation of the physical makeup of the urban environment – an ability to “understand the full social demographic layout of a city.”
In the digital era, the internet has fundamentally changed the way that graffiti is spread and consumed. Initially, for those young vandals that devoted themselves to the faith of graffiti – the subway system was their temple. A train was an active vessel that could carry your name from one side of the city to the other. The more trains you had running, the further your name spread, as did your fame and reputation. In an online society, that potential exposure is widened exponentially. Networks of computer systems can carry your name to a global audience in the same way that a network of train lines could carry your name out of the neighbourhood. It’s a new era of graffiti – and the culture’s relationship with the technology is still being defined.
Katsu is among those who saw the potential for online applications early on, uploading YouTube videos and creating mock advertising campaigns with digital tools. “Can a video on the web act like a sticker on the side of a bus? Can the illegal use of celebrities and brands reap fame tokens?” He asks me. “Right now I’m interacting with a lot more hackers. I’m trying to understand how I can be more involved in the developmental side of things.” The similarities between the two fringe cultures are obvious. Computer hackers seek to evade and manipulate digital systems in much the same way that graff writers try and subvert physical obstacles. “There’s a lot of crossover with false identities, and the way that you get respect,” explains Katsu. “It’s about how hard you’re willing to work to break something, because hacking is just about breaking shit, just for the cred.”
He already has an iPhone app, Katsu Fat Tag, to his name, and has dabbled in digital graffiti interventions in video games like Minecraft. Now he seems determined to take those applications to the street. “I’ve been thinking about installing these super cheap wifi hubs in streetlights all around the city, so that I can program them to pop up on people’s phones using push notifications,” even with the static on the line, I can hear the excitement in his voice. Katsu’s goal, as he explains, is to discover “where the essence of graffiti – being annoying and being disruptive – can cross over online.”
Considering countries like Germany have recently announced plans to maintain fleets of unmanned surveillance drones to combat graffiti writers in train yards, there’s poetic irony in vandals adapting technology to further their own agendas. Katsu agrees, “I’m trying to get a drone to carry a spraypaint can, but it’s just too heavy,” he laughs. “The NYPD are trying to turn New York into a surveilled city, so it’s fun to think of all the ways that you can trick the technology that people are going to be relying on.” Although, as Katsu explains, these new methods aren’t without risk, “It’s definitely a lot safer to go out and spray a building with an extinguisher than it is to knock a site down for two seconds, because you can do 20 years in prison for that.”
With technological advancements opening up new avenues of getting over, is there a temptation to move out of the streets? Not likely. “There are digital natives like ourselves who spend much of the day on the internet. But there’s also a large amount of people who are still looking for graffiti in the street and want to appreciate it in a physical place… It’s about balancing it out, luckily I have a lot of spots in New York that are pretty hard to get to, so I can afford to step away and go into the laboratory and fuck around online and still maintain that credibility.” At the end of the day, graffiti was born in an urban environment and Katsu is dedicated to the cause. “I love bombing more than anything. I mean that. Like, I love throwups and tags more than my own mother,” he tells me.
It’s that relentless, unwavering attitude that keeps Katsu’s name ringing in the streets but it also ensures that he’ll be under the harshest scrutiny for any signs of selling out, not that that’s a concern of his – “My work is always, first and foremost, designed for graffiti writers,” he states definitively. That’s the central tenet of Katsu: he genuinely doesn’t give a fuck what you think about him. Not in a simulacrum of rebellion sponsored by authorities that attempt to moderate graffiti culture, but in a genuine, all-consuming way – and there’s real power in that. While the corporate world and art world continue to negotiate their relationship with a form of expression that’s been developing for nearly 40 years since Norman Mailer penned his think piece for Esquire, Katsu and his BTM allies will remain on the sideline, agitating the structures that are trying to co-opt and coerce the subculture that they helped build. “It’s about trying to live life slightly different, trying to question things and understand how I fit in a world that’s pretty fucked up and suppressive… We want to have an affect on our surroundings and we want to show the world that we are not afraid to risk our freedom.” And as Katsu tells me – at the end of the day “nothing will be as effective as a can of black spray paint on a bare wall in the public.”
This story will appear in ACCLAIM’s upcoming issue 31 – The Loud Issue – preorder available here.
Photography by Will Robson-Scott.