For 40 years, the streets of the world have been covered with his name. Fernando Carlo, Jr. became enamored with tagging when he was only 10, but from the first time he wrote “Cope2” out on an MTA 4 train he was hooked for life. We spoke with the artist about his roots, the golden era of tagging trains, how he worked his way into galleries, and more shortly before his latest show, “Balancing the Elements,” opened at Inked NYC. Here’s Cope’s story, in his own words.
I was about 9, 10 years old growing up in the South Bronx with my mom. We’d take the train to go visit family members, so I always saw the graffiti on the subway cars and it was explosive. Just watching the names go by, I thought it was just normal. I asked my mom what it was and she explained how people would just write their names on the trains and it’s not allowed. You’re standing at the station and here pops out BOOM! A big “Blade” or “Comet,” “Tracy168” or “Pnut2,” these are the names I remember as a kid. Big, clean simple-style letters. It drew me in, the energy of it.
His First Tags
My cousin Chico was a local tagger in the neighborhood. One day I’m at my grandmother’s and he had this big marker, it was a Pilot marker. It was the first time I’d held a big marker in my hand. He’s like, “Let’s take a train ride.” We’d moved up to Mosholu Parkway and the last stop on the 4 was Woodlawn Road. We’d get on the train, get in the back car, and when the doors closed from Woodlawn to Moshulu he would just start tagging on the chairs, the windows, the doors. It was called motion bombing. Then when we hit Moshulu we’d get off, go down to the other side, and take it back. After that, when I went to my grandmother’s and he wasn’t there, I would take the marker out of his drawer and go on my own train ride.
The Train Yard
I met some local taggers and they knew where the 4 trains were parked in the yard. I went in there for the first time and it was like heaven. You see, all the trains were parked under the Tracy Towers, so we went in there and it was a whole other world. You’d see big pieces on all the trains, it was insane. That was it. I started sneaking in there and I remember the guy said, “Don’t ever touch that rail under that wood piece or you’re gonna get fried.” I would go in the yard and you’d find spray cans halfway empty and I would take them and start tagging the trains. Before you knew it I started to evolve. I started watching the pieces on the outside and I started noticing pieces by Deli167, Mark198, Comet, Blade, Pnut2, Kit17. These were the guys that really inspired me.
It was all about having fun and getting your name up. As we hit 13, 14, we started getting girlfriends. Girls always loved graffiti back then. If you had your name on the outside of a train, BOOM! That was, like, an instant two, three girlfriends you had. They never believed in the beginning, you would have to show them the writing on the train when you cut school or you’d have to do it actually on a piece of paper. Then I started taking pictures of my trains in ’82, ’83.
We’d go into the Woolworth back in the day and we’d steal everything, man. I’d go in there and come out with a pocket full of everything—film, a Kodak 110 camera, spray cans. We would take it, put it in our coats and break out. We were kids, we didn’t care. Woolworth’s had mad spray paint. They didn’t start locking it down until the late ’80s, but kids were still popping the locks and getting spray paint.
In the ’80s it was all about trains, all about taking king of a line. And once you took king of the 4 you went on to other lines—the 1, the 2, the 5. It was tough because you had other graffiti writers who claimed that line, and if you came on their line they didn’t like it. I used to start getting my pieces crossed out with no-names, but I would just go harder.
The End of an Era
When the trains died in ’88, ’89, that was it. The new trains came in and they got rid of all the graffiti’d subway cars. I guess they got a budget and went really hard. First they painted all the trains white in ’84, they got destroyed. It was the stupidest decision ever. How stupid is the MTA? That’s like a canvas, it’s like saying, “Come paint my train!” Then they started getting rid of them and throwing them in the ocean, scrapping them or sending them to museums. Before you knew it, we got new trains and that was it. It got to the point where if you painted a clean train it got buffed right away. A lot of people grew out of it. I grew out of it. I had two kids, I was in my mid-20s, I had to work two jobs, so I just went on to painting walls.
I was working jobs, so many jobs, I’ve done it all: security, construction, carpentry. I must have done every job you could think of and I just got tired. But I was watching those guys who went before me putting their work on canvas. I would go to exhibitions and see these guys like John1, SEEN, Dondi… you go inside and you’re looking at a Dondi painting and it says $10,000. $5,000. It takes me a month, two months to make that, I was like, I gotta transition and paint on canvas.
Sometimes it’s tough because you’ve got the “trying to keep it real in the hood” stuff and to transition into making money off of your art and they’ll start saying you sold out. But I’ve learned in life that it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to do what’s best for you. As long as you’re being honest, you’re being true and you’re not hurting anybody, you’re not selling out. People have to understand, I got kids. I got bills. If I can sell artwork you want me to not sell artwork because you want me to “keep it real in the hood?” The hood doesn’t do anything for you but make things worse.
Finding His Place
When I first started doing canvas I was just doing bubble letters and wild style pieces and they were difficult to sell. It was really tough getting them into galleries. You could do a little graffiti show at a graffiti shop and sell a little canvas for 200 bucks, which was cool, but you’re trying to squeeze into the galleries. Luckily in Paris they had a couple of galleries. In Paris they really, really loved the graffiti, so when I started going to Paris I started getting connected with people and that’s where they started accepting my bubble letters and really liking my story.
Balancing the Elements
I wanted to get a little more into the contemporary scene. So I asked, how can I flip my style but still keep my elements? I was watching one of my idols, Basquiat, and how he used to take the paint and just roll over or prime over a spot and tag. Then prime another spot and tag. I said, there you go, I can do that with my style. So I would bomb up the canvas with tags and throwups, then I would prime it in certain corners and when it dried I’d do it again. So I started to do layers. That was it. Throw in some splats and people started to go crazy.
I started showing in more galleries but I was able to keep my tags, my wild style, my bubble letters. I was still balancing the elements, but adding a little more art into it, because I wanted to show people that I can do it all.