The Legendary Queens Graffiti Writer Talks About 7 Line Roofs, The DMS Pits, Sculptures, and More.

If you’re from New York City, especially Queens, Nato is a graffiti legend that needs no introduction. But for those who don’t know, do yourself a favor. Hop on the 7 Train, press your nose into the glass windows, adjust your eyes onto the rooftops, and ride that Iron Horse from Hunter’s Point all the way down to Flushing. When you hit Flushing, get off the train, grab a slice of Lucia’s on Main St., and then get your ass back on the 7 so you can just look at all the rooftops you didn’t peep on the other side. By the end of this trip, you would have scored one of the best slices of pizza in New York and a survey of some of the illest graffiti Queens has to offer. However, the roofs weren’t always like that.

“A part of my motivation to paint roofs was to simply rock for Queens. I wanted people to come to us and for the 7 Line to be the fucking line. I think Bruz felt the same way. Everyone ended up coming to that line in the '90s,” says Nato. “I'm not saying that was because of me, but I like to believe that I had some kind of influence on that. At a certain point, it felt like everyone had to get up on the 7 to be somebody.”

After meeting Nato last winter at the Martinez Gallery, we agreed to meet up for a beer and a burger at Donovan’s Pub underneath the 7 Line. Although there are one or two articles about Nato inside publications like the New York Times and Mass Appeal, I was always curious to learn more about one of the original kings of Queens. For the first newsletter from CrookNYC, I present one of the first interviews with Nato in nearly 20 years.

Follow Nato @nnatorious and purchase his art here.

October 20, 2019

Tell me about those pillows we saw at the Martinez Gallery the other night?
They hit a couple of points for me. One of the pillows I made was from a XXXL Coogi sweater that was missing the sleeves. Nobody's wearing this thing so I bought it for material. I'm recycling it and giving the object another life. It's an iconic '90s clothing piece that you can use in your house. I added my Nato signature by creating an RA/NY label to go along with it. Those were a lot of fun to make. I even made a pillow out of an authentic Mayor's Anti-Graffiti Task Force T-shirt that I had in my closet. The Snow Beach pillow was made out of a bootleg material because I'm not cutting up a $1,500 jacket, but the rest are original '90s materials that are being repurposed into household objects. I’ve always liked functional art.

What's good with those spray can sculptures you used to make? 
So, as a kid growing up in Queens, we would go to the DMS Pits on a regular. Bruz, who was my first writing partner and a very good friend of mine, used to live right across the street from the Pits. 

We were together all the fucking time painting, bullshitting, cutting out of school, tripping on acid, the whole fucking thing down there. This was when they weren’t really painted heavy. Pyro, Jere, Mod and a couple of other guys were down there but Sane was the really first guy who started priming it and painting it. The pits were littered with fucking spray cans. You couldn't make a move without stepping on a can and they were all rusted out and beautiful. It’s that beauty and decay that all graffiti writers know. So I would collect them just because they were so fucking beautiful. Eventually I repurposed them making those sculptures you remember with the raised Nato lettering. 

So you started painting graffiti in 1988? 
Yeah ‘88 is when I started, '89 I got a little more serious, but '90 was when I hooked up with Bruz. That was really when I became Nato.

What drew you to roofs originally? 
As a kid, I would take the trains, with my mom and look out the windows.  I would see all the graffiti on the roofs. The original king of the 7 Line was Sheer. I think he was from Corona and he was amazing. He had a number of long standing roofs that are out here. There were a few rooftop writers like Nak. He also did handball courts and other spots in the neighborhood around Corona and Jackson Heights. He was also a big influence. So you would see Nak, Ney, Skel, Sly, Rik-man, Chelo, Myse, Node and some of the TA7 guys like Mono and Claim. 

The roofs were fucking amazing as a kid and I would ask my mom: 'How do they get up there and do that?' I used to think all the roofs were connected as a kid. I would think that you could climb up on one roof and it would connect to all the other roofs. It's got that feeling to it. As a kid growing up in the neighborhood, we started to climb roofs for fun, my best friend Giovanni and I used to ride around the neighborhood on Mongoose bikes, before painting graffiti, to just climb roofs. It was just something that we would do.  So I grew up knowing how to climb really well and knowing how to get up on a lot of roofs. So when I got into graffiti, it was the only place where I wanted to be. At night on a roof, with the train going by and the fucking street going on below you. 

Was there any strategy involved when it came to painting roofs?
Not to over simplify it, but the strategy was mainly not to get caught. I did a lot of my shit by myself so I tried to be very in touch with the moment. That was the strategy – get up, paint and get out. 

November 19, 2016

How did you pick spots? 
There were the usual suspects. There was the "Rooftop Action" one on 61st and the other that Ghost and Peek had. You always had those roofs that people did. But I wanted to expand the visual parameters. By looking at the same roofs all the time, you get accustomed to looking, there, up there, and over there. My thing would be looking at places where graffiti was not. I would look in the background, on the side, on the left, and on the right.  I would also try to scope out maybe how you get up there. Sometimes I would scope it out beforehand. Sometimes I would just go and figure it out on the spot. I just knew the construction. I knew that there had to be a way through the alley, over the garage, over that sidewall. I got a feeling for it because I did it so much. The new spot was always the way to go. 

What were the challenges of painting roofs? 
Well it's everything that one would imagine. You have to get in, get up and get out without anybody seeing you. It's a whole experience; getting over barbed wires, running through the tunnels, climbing up fire escapes. Just getting up on the roof is like pulling a fucking rabbit out of a hat and then you gotta paint. From there, hopefully you're not setting off any alarms, getting electrocuted, or falling off the fucking roof. You got to calm your nerves, block everything out, and try to produce something that looks halfway decent. It was very challenging at times. I remember having helicopters come over me in Woodside. The “Notorious Nato” roof by Junction Blvd., which was inspired by my Mom since she said I was notorious not famous. I did that roof by myself and it had to be around 5AM, the sun was coming up and I'm looking over the side of the roof about to go down, and the fucking D's are sitting there having coffee right in front of the fucking roof. So I had to lay up there for another hour or so waiting for the detectives to go about their business. 

Your mom ever see that roof? 
Nah she frowned upon it. As a parent now I understand that you love your children more than yourself but back then I couldn't comprehend any of it. By loving your children more than yourself, you don't want them to die. You don't want them to get into trouble with the law. Seems obvious now, but at the time I couldn’t understand that.

Graffiti was something I needed to do. We had that conversation, my mother and I. My dad died when I was a teenager and it was hard for me. Jackson Heights was a rough and tumble working class neighborhood and graffiti saved me from a lot of other things. Graffiti saved me from a lot more serious criminal shit that people I grew up with were doing.  People who I grew up with are dead. People who I grew up with are locked up. People who I grew up with are strung out on base or heroin. Graffiti saved me from all of those things. 

Photo: The DMS Pits

What could you say about the Sunnyside Yards and clean train layups in Queens? 
Fuzz One took me around as a kid. Fuzz was 28 when I met him and I couldn't have been older than 14 or 15. He's really the guy that turned me on to trains. And he took me everywhere. Ront and I mainly. Ront lived right down the block from me and Fuzz lived right over by Queens Boulevard.  We started going to his house after somebody from the 78th Street Boys introduced us to him. 

Fuzz took me around and showed me a lot of the clean train layups as a kid. Not to paint but to just scope them out. This was when the clean train movement was just starting so I got turned on to all that stuff. 

I took a break from '92-'94, but when I came back I knew all these places. At a certain point, I had the key to get inside the fucking trains. And any graffiti writer will tell you, if you spend a lot of time by yourself looking at graffiti magazines or movies, you get the fever and it wraps you up. I was convinced that I was going to bring the trains back. It was my fucking mission. So everyday I went into the layups- I was a big inside guy personally. I had the keys to the R's and F's and banged out all the fucking layups with Griffin lollipops. After work or after school, I'd go to Grand Avenue-Newton, do some motions, then go to 75th Avenue and do some more. 

1995 was a crazy year. I was in the layups at least twice a week on a mission to bring the trains back. 2:00 am when the rows were double stacked for rush hour and the work bums had turned in for the night was when I showed up for my shift. Keys to the ding dongs hung around my chain so I wouldn’t forget my mandate. As with most things in graffiti that just wasn’t enough: for the afternoon rush I’d post up in Grand Ave Newtown smoking cigarettes as I motioned outsides with Griffin lollipops. Ask me about it when you see me. I still cop lotto tickets at Pronto. Photo by AKS. #natora
December 10, 2019

The high from doing trains is the highest you can get. You are in the layups and the fucking trains are chugging. It's like 2AM and you’re nervous when the trains are making noise. And it's even worse when they are not making noise. Every sense that you have is just alive. You are just listening, feeling, and then you start knocking out those fucking insides boy. It's a dangerous addiction. There's nothing like painting a train. 

What would you say were your most active years? 
‘94-’95 and ‘97-’00. At the very beginning from ‘89-’91 we were the young guys on the block. But '98 seemed like a big year for me. 

Why '98? 
Sometimes you can see the end coming. As a writer, I was trying to predict the future a bit. Not like where graffiti was going, but how could I get the most spot longevity? I think in '98 is when I realized I couldn't bomb my whole life. I always wanted to paint, but I knew eventually I would have to get my money right and my civilian life shit in order. In '98 I became aware of that future.

How did you come up with your name? 
It was the letters. I found out after the fact that it was North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I wrote Cast One first and then I wrote Capone but that looked like, “Cap one” so that wouldn’t work. So it was how the letters came together. I also wanted it to be a name that you can call me by. 

Did anyone teach you how to write? 
I kind of figured it out myself. But I was also competing with Bruz because he was a huge competitor. Everything he fucking did he needed to be the best at it. So Bruz, being as good as he was, really forced me to become a better graffiti writer. Bruz and I had differences at a certain point. He went with RIS and that was a little hurtful for me because he was my partner and I felt left behind. But in retrospect that made me go harder and forced me to get better. 

There was no choice. From where I sat, Bruz was good from the very beginning, whereas I had to really work hard at it. So my competition with him is part of the reason why I tried to king the 7 Line. It was to compete with Bruz. I know that now looking back.

Photo: Nato and Bruz

What was your upbringing like? 
I was born in '75 in Manhattan but raised in Jackson Heights, Queens on the border of Elmhurst. We weren’t poor but grew up check to check in a rent-stabilized apartment. I had a good childhood at home but was bullied in the street. My parents just didn’t prepare me for that. In the '80s it was fucking crazy man but in hindsight I wouldn't change anything because my motivation for graffiti and art comes from all the hard times and all the fucked up shit that happened. I wouldn't change any of it. 

After my dad passed away, my mother had to raise two boys by herself and that was tough for her. I was out in the street every night with the RA/74th Street crew on Roosevelt Avenue, that was my family. I honestly didn't see anything else in my future other than getting locked up or ending up dead. I really didn't think I would live past 21, that's where I was at, at that point. If motherfuckers had beef back then, people were pulling out fucking guns and stabbing people. I understand the '90s era of New York is super influential. When it came to graffiti, fashion, and hip-hop, I mean New York was on top of the fucking world. It was a beautiful time to be alive but boy was it dangerous. I've been locked up, had knives pulled on me, been shot at, been in fistfights and then some - all that 90’s shit. It was a crazy era and I'm glad I came out the other end alive because a lot of people didn't.

How did the Mass Appeal issue come together? What was it like back then? 
Mass Appeal back in the day was like the top graff mag. But when Alife hooked up with Mass Appeal, that's when they really blew up. I'm unsure if the “Five Borough” issues were made shortly after Alife hooked up with Mass Appeal or just before. But from memory the idea behind them was to bind all the issues together into a book. I thought that was a fucking bomb idea.

Photo: Nato in Mass Appeal’s Queens Issue

How do you feel about the graffiti on the 7 Line today? 
I have mixed feelings partially because I’m nostalgic. Graffiti is tough because it's not like oil painting or still life where you can just keep practicing in your studio to paint a good still life until you can display it. In graffiti your growth and mistakes are very public. I think there are a lot of people on the cusp of blowing up. I look forward to the new Nato and Bruz, Sheer or Nak. I want to see two kids compete with each other, to do more and take it all. The 7 Line needs that you know?

Special Thanks to the Queens OG @yungnomiveliito for helping with some of the questions.