Kill Pretty: I was in San Francisco a lot in 2001-2005 and I was seeing a lot of the remnants of everything that had happened.
ATOMS: I had just moved to New York in 2001. The scene was really slowing down as I recall. I mean, it was still good for several years. Probably until 2005. Then the buff just took over out there.
KP: Yeah, I had got a good ending piece of it and I remember you and BLIS had so many legal spots still running everywhere. They were all really interesting and different.
ATOMS: We tried. We were pushing stuff.
KP: Where are you from?
ATOMS: I grew up in the South Bay. I was born in Chicago, but we moved to the bay in the 70’s. I started high school at Fremont High in Sunnyvale, but it was gang-infested with all these drive bys and my mom was like, “There’s this art school in San Francisco, you should check it out.” So I auditioned in the theater department and I got into School of the Arts which was SOTA at the time. It was right behind San Francisco State, but it went back to McAteer High School where it originally started, so now it’s back to McAteer. I got there in ‘92, graduated in ‘94, so I started at the end of my sophomore year and everybody there was a writer. Everyone was bus hopping in San Francisco in the 90’s. Guys like MISK, San Francisco COPE, KRAX(RIP)... all these guys. Every single kid at School of the Arts tagged. There were only 400 of us at that art school and I shit you not, there were 399 writers. Just because it was the thing to do. So I started bus hopping.
KP: When did you start writing?
ATOMS: ‘92. So I started bus hopping and I was writing SYRE, that was probably for six months. Then I started writing REEK and this dude PEEK jumped me at Forest Hills station and beat the shit out of me and told me never to write REEK again. I said “Okay.” Then I started writing COFN with a bunch of Filipino dudes from School of the Arts from this crew called POF.
When I was writing COFN in ‘92 I really started to figure out just how to do stuff. How to fill ultra wides, but there was no spray paint yet. In earnest, the first time I probably pushed an ATOMS piece was probably in ‘94. It was also down in Palo Alto. In some storm drain right off El Camino not far from Stanford Shopping Center. I did a bunch of my first pieces in this storm drain. I got arrested down there for my first time also. From ‘94 to ‘95 I was living in the south bay again. I had graduated and I went back to live at home with my mom. But all I was doing was painting and she was like, “If you’re not going to go to collage or something you should move.” Actually she told me she was gonna charge me rent and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to pay rent to live with my mom?” I did that for three months and my buddy was living in Oakland and he was like, “Yo, come to Oakland.” So I moved to East Oakland and that’s when I started really crushing.
KP: What was San Francisco like at that time?
ATOMS: It was so raw, it was so good. Guys like TWIST were killing it in ‘92. TMF crew, I idolized guys like DUG, DEEN and BSARO. There was a big 80’s piecing scene and NEON, CRAYONE and the TWS guys, they were doing full on productions. Then TDK, DREAM and SPIE, those guys were doing full on productions, but really the city was all about ultra wide marker tags on buses, insides and outsides. There was a crew called ARM which was, I think, ALWAYS RUNNING MUNI and RTM. That was the first time I ever saw a fat cap tag, before TWIST was this dude FORM from ARM.
FORM would go into the bus yards and do these big straight fat cap tags on the insides of the backs of all the buses. Just a thick FORM ARM. No one had fat cap tags. I think he was using WD-40 or oven cleaner caps. There were no fat caps yet. The city was really about marker tags from what I saw. I like pieces, but all of my friends in high school were bus hopping. We would get out of school around 3 and just bus hop all afternoon long. You would get on one bus and tag it, jump out the door and get on another one, we would just hop all day long. Everyone did that, TWIST did that, all the kings of SF were bus hopping too. That was before TWIST had done much character work. He was just doing a lot of tags even though he had his characters. It was a marker city, very much so.
KP: Has the bus hopping style changed or is it pretty similar to how it was back then?
ATOMS: I think what is really interesting is San Francisco’s tagging style defined itself through the buses and through ultra wide markers, and you still see it. You see these kids using spray paint and that San Francisco Mission style kinda got a gang influence, but really it’s just got this one flow/non-stop tag that kinda goes small to big still. That small to big thing I think came from LA, but caught on really big in San Francisco. But I think it was a real direct influence on everything but everything did. Throw ups started influencing tags which were influencing pieces and characters. San Francisco was so unique. Much later guys like HEART101 came out doing big roller tags. We had never really seen that. Everyone gave HEART such a hard time. I always liked that kid. But that’s part of the influence I think.
KP: So you moved back to the South Bay?
ATOMS: I moved back for about a year. That’s when I was learning how to piece. I was learning how to rack. In the South Bay there were all these spots, like under 85, all these under the freeway little walls. Tons of these storm drains in Palo Alto and Santa Clara. I was painting some freights in San Jose. I was hanging out with that dude ZEST from RTM San Jose who was kind of a protege of KING157. I just met KING a couple years ago. For me, I was just figuring out how to paint, you know? It was probably good that I was doing it underneath freeways because everything was so bad that I was doing.
Actually the first piece that I painted was on a Caltrain soundwall in Palo Alto. Right off California ave. My mom owned a restaurant on California Ave. so I would just walk from Sunnyvale to Palo Alto all the time. I would always walk on the train tracks and I just started spotting little spots where I could do little super toy pieces. A lot of them were these COFN pieces. I did a couple of little SYRE throw ups. My first ATOMS piece was under 85. That was probably ‘94. It was all stock cap, all Orchard Supply Hardware paint. Whatever I could rack. I had this auto body shop that I used to rack from and the Orchard Supply off of El Camino. And some Krylon. I was getting Krylon from MISK up in San Francisco. MISK was kind of a protege of CRAYONE. MISK was the guy that got me into BA. MISK really taught me a lot. He put it down for quite a while and now he’s a legit graphic designer. CRAYONE taught us how to mix spray paint with WD-40 caps and the hose. We learned all those tricks from the older generation. NEON especially too. NEON was one of my big mentors right when I got into BA.
KP: When did you get into BA?
ATOMS: ‘96 I think. Like I said, my mom started charging me rent around ‘95 and I was like, “Well that’s crazy”, and moved to East Oakland. It was actually funny because our upstairs neighbor was PAK from TDK and DREAM was his roommate from time to time, so just by chance we lived below PAK and DREAM which was wild because DREAM was like the coolest dude. He was just really honest. He would look at my drawings and be like, “This isn’t right, this line should go this way, and this... work on these bubbles.” DREAM taught me a lot of basic things.
ATOMS: Kinda structure. I had a structure already, but he helped me polish it. He came out here in the 80’s and got put down with FC. I think a lot of New Yorkers influenced him pretty heavy. The entire San Francisco new wave style that happened in the 80’s was directly influenced from them as everything was, right? But a lot of New York guys came out to the bay in the mid 80’s, like ZEPH came out and he was a big influence on TWS crew. In early ‘96 I moved into an apartment in The Mission, sold my car, got a bike and just started bombing every single day. From ‘96 to 2001 I didn’t really sleep, you know? I was just crushing. I started managing this internet cafe down off Third St. and Howard. So I opened that cafe at 6am every day and I got on this schedule for about three years of open the cafe at 6am, work until 2pm, then go home and go to sleep and wake up at 9pm and go out and go bombing until 6am when I had to go to work again. I did that for three years.
ATOMS: That’s how I put in all that work, that cycle. It was all happening in ‘96, everyone was really pushing. ‘96 was a big year in that city, you know? TWIST really came into his own, all these guys had moved up from the South Bay, ORFN and all those US guys came up to the city, all these other people like GIANT came from Albuquerque and that was a big influence on the city. Everyone just came. All the LA guys came a little bit later, like ‘97, ‘98. ‘96 had a really pure Bay Area/Northern California thing going on. It kind of changed when all the AWR guys came up. I appreciated them coming up though. I wasn’t like a lot of people who totally hated. But ‘96 was really pure. Everyone was just doing their thing. There was very little outside influence which was cool too. Everyone was looking at each other and they were all Bay Area people basically, with the exception of GIANT and a few others.
KP: At the time, were you guys aware of what was happening or were you just doing your thing?
ATOMS: No, we did not know. At the time we weren’t understanding how unique of a time it was. For me, it really took a long time to reflect back. It was after I moved out to New York, probably around 2004 or 2005 that I was like, “Whoa! ‘95, ‘96, ‘97 was so special in the bay!” I didn’t have that vision at the time. I was too in it to know. And I was also just a maniac, an arrogant asshole. I was such an idiot, you know? I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Which I think just comes with the territory. If you’re going to be bombing every night for years you’re going to develop a ton of enemies. You can’t go over someone and expect them not to want to seek you out and fight you. That’s one of the reasons I came out here, was just to get away from all the beef I had. I couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone that wanted to take my head off. I was okay to fight, but I didn’t want to keep fighting.
KP: The city is so small. You
always feel like you’re going to run into someone.
ATOMS: It’s so small and so dense. I would think that there were maybe thousands of writers in San Francisco in ‘96. Most of them were toys, but so many heavy hitters. There’s just not enough space, you know? I got mugged in high school by ICP guys at gunpoint on the N Judah. This kid ZELT put a little .22 right in my face and took everything I had. Took my Jordans, took my jacket, took my CD player, took my wallet, took my cigarettes. I had to go home to Sunnyvale that night and I did it shoeless...it was pretty horrible. Much later those ICP guys came back to me in ‘97, ‘98 and they had all found Islam and all this stuff and that dude ZELT came up and apologized for that day which was kind of a big moment for me. I had kind of carried this thing with me about being mugged at gunpoint.
KP: Were there any writers back then that you felt didn’t get the attention they deserved?
ATOMS: HEART101 was definitely one of them who was doing all these silly, bubbly art, lovey dovey, kinda hippy roller fill-ins and everyone just called him a toy. I remember just thinking, “Well, if he’s a toy because he doesn’t use spray paint then... okay, yes, that’s toy.” But that dude really paved the way for people to do these really huge roller tags now. COST and REVS were doing big roller tags in New York, but no one had really done it in the bay. HEART did 3-D and double outlines and technicals-all with roller and all huge.
KP: Even when I was there it felt like he was crushing. I remember seeing so much.
ATOMS: He never really got any respect. There were also guys from ESL crew… The interesting thing about The Bay is I feel like a lot of the guys who put in a lot of work at that time have gotten a lot of shine, you know?
KP: Do you have any stories with TIE?
ATOMS: So many man. Me and Jon, we didn’t know each other, but we were up so much and we were always talking on walls to each other. Not in a good way. The first time we met we actually fought. Most people have this idea that Jon was this super pacifist which he kinda was, he was more just like this really little skinny kid. But we were at the Caltrain station at 4th and King. I was coming into the city from somewhere and he was about to go out and we were walking across Townsend on the same crosswalk and we were just looking at each other and I donno… we probably just had splatters of paint all over us. It was weird because we clearly knew who each other were, but we had never met or talked and I don’t know if he’d ever seen me before, it’s totally possible. Without saying anything we just started to box right in the middle of this crosswalk. I hit him first and I kind of feel bad, but he didn’t back down, we boxed right there.
We were both bloody and all scraped up and I remember sitting on the sidewalk after the fight and he was like, “I know this really dope Vietnamese spot.” That’s the first thing we said to each other. I was like, “Oh, let’s go.” So we just went. We never talked about that moment since. We just started bombing that night. That must have also been early ‘96. Maybe it was early ‘97? We only got a chance to go out, not even a year of bombing. So many stories, man. We would daytime bomb in Chinatown. He and I got this really nice flow of bombing in the day together. We were just talking one day and I was like, “We don’t need to be hiding at night. Especially in Chinatown. Let’s just go do this shit in the day.”
KP: Were you guys just not even looking out? Just doing it?
ATOMS: I’d look out and then he’d look out. Unless we were in some super cutty spot where we didn’t have to. Daytime bombing in Chinatown, it’s good to have somebody looking out, but it was so packed back then. People would yell things at us in Chinese. I don’t know what they were saying. He really taught me a lot about racking. I had never really thought about, ‘oh, just take the duffel and just pull everything into the duffel.’ I had learned to rack from NEON and other BA guys and it was a one at a time kinda thing. Jon would take a duffel bag and just grab a shelf. He would rack anything. He would rack hairspray, he would rack anything and trade it for stuff. I remember that dude DASE from ATT moved to San Francisco from Kansas City for a couple of years. He painted quite a bit. He was managing a North Face Outlet down on Bryant back in the day and I would go in there and grab a North Face duffel and grab 20 Gore-Tex jackets in it and I learned that from TIE. I would have never been so brazen. DASE also told me back then that the security guards, they couldn’t touch you, they could only ask you to stop or say they were going to call the cops. They also couldn’t lock the doors. When I heard that I was just like, “Yo, Jon, let’s just go there”. So we would do that. We would duffel North Face gear and then sell it to get paint and other stuff. There were just a lot of nights where Jon and I slept on rooftops and slept in abandoned buildings, again, because of that cycle I was on from bombing from 9pm to 6am. He was always there. He would be sitting on my doorstep in the Excelsior at 9 or 10pm and we would go. Dude was super dedicated to being together which I always appreciated about him. I think he was like that with a lot of people too. Most people talk about his dedication to friendship. That was really true. He was a good friend.
KP: Here and there I see little faces he would do. Did he do a lot of those back then?