home > Interviews > HOW & NOSM


July 2009

HOW and NOSM. These names belong together, as well with each other as with graffiti itself. There are just a very few graffiti writers in this world, who spread their names further. Many have been there, but just a very few dared to jump into the Mekka of graffiti New York City and became established. Lots have been travelling around, leaving their names on the train systems and walls of the world, but – just a few have been in that many countries as HOW and NOSM. What started for these twins in a small town in Germany, developed into a graffiti story full of pioneering spirit, friendship and adventure. And, nowadays, an end isn’t in sight. More than a reason for us to get to know them a little closer within our 30th issue…

Just for the case that anyone out there doesn’t know who HOW and NOSM are, please introduce yourself.
We're twin brothers born in San Sebastian in the Basque country of Spain. We moved to Germany when we were about 6 years old as the result of our parents divorce, where we spent most of our time outside playing. The German word “Schluesselkinder”(kids with keys) describes our childhood perfectly. Running the streets unattended, we were introduced to graffiti when we were around 13 years of age. We spend the first year or two mostly doing tags and some throw-ups in a suburb near Duesseldorf. Then we progressed to doing pieces around town and continued our illegal activities by experimenting with trains. Shortly thereafter we began travelling. Since our city had become to small for us and as our painting became more elaborate and bigger in size, we began painting legally more, which led to us making a living of our art. After years of travelling and forming many graffiti friendships, we now reside in New York City. We're pretty well known in the mural scene, as well in the underground train bombing movement.

You were born in Germany, now living in New York. How come, and when did you leave Germany?
We moved to New York City in the summer of 1999 and have been living in the United States ever since. I guess it was a result of our prior visits to New York City in 1997 and 1998. We had made friends with BIO, BG 183, and NICER, got along very well personally as well as professionally, and they asked us to join their crew. Back in Germany we represented our own RAL CREW and TATS CRU, and we intensified our travelling, pushing their name hard and giving the New York based crew a wider audience and some new life. At the same time, we were feeling more and more alienated in our surroundings. Especially since we weren't born in Germany we had always felt misplaced, but as kids we had no other choice. So when we had the chance to make a living, establish more friendships, and have somewhat of a family, we finally moved from Germany to New York fuckin’ City.

So do you feel as Germans or as Americans? Or a part of both?
We can’t really say we feel like Germans or Americans. Like I said before, we were born in the country of Basque that seeks autonomy and independence. A place with multiple identities. Spanish or Basque, German or American? We don't feel that any of that really applies to us, especially after having been so many different places all around the world, and relating to those different cultures and their people. But we represent Germany and New York City (not to be confused the United States of America) wherever we go.

You made your first graffiti experiences in Germany. Do you still have an eye on what’s going on over here? How do you think has everything changed over here since then?

We certainly have kept an eye on Germany’s ever growing graffiti culture and movement since we left for New York City. It's essential for us to follow artists we worked with and befriended during the years we were in Germany. In contrast to many other writers, we like to see artists grow and develop, and actually make a living at what their love doing. We do also appreciate the younger generations and their ability to take this whole thing to another level... hopefully. The graffiti scene in Germany has drastically changed throughout the recent years and has gone in a lot of positive directions. The quality is getting better and better, and everything is developing at such a fast pace it's hard to keep up. There are books, magazines and galleries all over and for the last few years a new brand of spray paint has even been on the commercial market. Thanks to the internet it's definetly easier to keep an eye on you guys, but we also have a whole bunch of active resources that keep us posted. The illegal bombing scene has decreased a bit in a lot of cities but there's always someone resurrecting old activities, and others follow. That's been the case of most big cities in Germany to our knowledge. We try our best to keep up, but sometimes we fail to know something or someone. Who doesn’t nowadays? The older guys have also been more focusing on their personal work and lives, so they visually disappear to some extent. But that’s building on Germanys future as well, since they are breaking ground and becoming respected artists. In the end that benefits everybody.

What phase was New York in, when you went there? Still the “wild style” look or already clean?
At the time of our arrival, and also our first visit in 1997, graffiti in New York City was experiencing a revival. That had a lot to do with Germanys graffiti tourism. Guys like LOOMIT, DAIM, and HESH had recently joined the (no longer existing) FX CREW and were doing enormous productions with imported spray paint. It gave walls a new look. The only ones still doing their thing on the other side were the TATS CRU. We joined them and somewhat of a competition started, resulting in a lot of great productions, mainly in the Bronx borough. Both crews were leading the graffiti movement and made such a tremendous impression that it influenced lots of retired writers to restart their graff careers. One of them was SEEN UA. Back then the streets were totally bombed and it was hard to find spots to hit on walls or gates. That was nice to look at for any writer, but not for many landlords and business owners. So landlords would give wall space to writers to do murals on the regular basis as an effort to deter illegal graffiti. New York had lots of productions all over, trains were all clean and the clean train area was almost non existent... –but not for long!

What’s with the New York scene nowadays? We don’t really hear too many news from it over here...
The New York scene is actually sad nowadays compared to earlier years. Over the last few years graffiti has suffered a lot from harsh punishments and intense persecution of writers. The police state that New York is in discourages a lot of young kids, so they don't pick up the tools of the trade seriously. A generation of writers to follow the last one is missing, and the newly restructed vandal task force and its eradication program are taking a toll on the movement. There are so many walls cleaned, productions buffed, and gates replaced that New York really lost its edge. Yes, sure
trains are being bombed by numerous visitors, but not enough to be seen by the public. There isn't much coming from New Yorkers themselves. To be honest, I think we are the only crew that is still around in their original constellation and still delivering big productions. I guess most people go the easy route and put up stencils, posters, and what-so-ever in a trendy area to get attention. That area being downtown Manhattan. Regardless, we have big hopes for New York and we already see some guys doing their thing in style and keeping it in the streets.

Nowadays it’s pretty normal to travel the world as a graffiti artist. You both are kind of pioneers of graffiti tourism. Where have you been and how come you travel so much?
Well, I don’t think we have ever answered this question in detail, but Stylefile requested a detailed interview and our own curiosity made me question where we have actually been. So lets try to remember a few: Germany, Spain, England, Portugal, France, Ireland, Iceland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Kroatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Tschech Republic, Slowakia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Brasil, Puerto Rico, Canada, just to name some. We started travelling because it was a great way to get our name out and learn about different cultures, places and people. But we also had to travel because of visa reasons, and after a while we just kind of got addicted to it and made it one of our goals to visit new places. At the same time, it helped a lot of people get inspired or even start to paint. It was kind of  a graffiti community outreach program we developed and it was possible because we were full-time artists able to organize our own work and time schedule.Financially we were able to move around freely. It enabled us to see our art from a different perspective. Besides, it's always good to see where you might retire one day…

There must be a huge collection of stories over the years, aren’t there? What are the craziest experiences you made on your travels?

Yeah, there are quite a few and naturally every country we've visited has their own. I'll tell you about our trip to Colombia. We left New York with about 100 full cans of spray paint on the evening of September 10, 2001. Unfortunatly, we got called up by customs and questioned regarding what we intended to do with all those explosive and highly flammable containers. We didn’t want any trouble, so we decided they could keep the paint and boarded our flight to Bogota. We arrived in the late night and went right to sleep. The next day our connection woke us up, telling us some drunk idiot hit the twin towers. We kind of laughed, but realized quickly after the second plane hit the towers that it was way more serious than that. When we began doing our first wall police officers started questioning us again but went their way after noticing we were New York residents. I guess they felt sorry. Being outside the country, we wondered if we could get back with all that security and fear at the borders. We couldn’t make phone calls for days and it wasn’t easy to find phones down there to begin with. Wandering around we came across the “Cartucho”, Bogota’s most notorious slum right across the presidential building in downtown Bogota. About a year after our visit the government was doing some military testing and a rocket accidentally hit that slum and almost destroyed it. Anyway, one of our connections knew one of the main druglords and convinced him to let us paint inside. Upon entering the dire poverty we were emersed in became immediately aparent. There was garbage everywhere. It was like the entire street was paved in it and made it almost impossible to walk without stumbling. People were shitting and urinating and getting high right and left. Fecal matter everywhere. We walked through buildings with no doors or window frames and the people laying on the floors begged and touched us. It's like we were aliens to them with our white skin. When we finally met the druglord of the huge slum city he gave us a spot to paint. But we didn’t like it much and tried to convince him to look out for us and give us a wall space that was better visually. He said he would only agree to give us a better space if we did a sign for him, but we only had silvers and we didn’t want to waste them on that. We were in a deadlock. I offered him money but he wouldn't take it, until he realised that it was dollars I was offering. Then he agreed and let us paint. He also guaranteed us his protection. As soon we started to paint we had a crowd of about 50 people yelling, cursing, and threatening us. We finished fast and were advised not to take pictures because our cameras might get jacked. Leaving the place, military police stopped us again and of course weren’t happy with us being there, but after searching us thoroughly they let us go with a warning. We took pictures from the outside and just two days later somebody had built a makeshift hut. Another story from Bogota occured when we took a couple of kids to the train yard. Their line is really small and only runs on weekends since it makes no money and its sole purpose is to take around tourists. So we located our little lay-up by day and when we returned at night we saw that it was lit up by stadium floodlights. After scoping it out and starting to do our thing, we saw the silhouettes of two people moving towards us. When we realised they were armed security guards that had been hiding all along on a nearby water tower, we started running. Unfortunately, they had a German shepard that started chasing us and bit one of the kids who then started kicking to get rid of him. But that was our least worries, since the guards started shooting at us with their riffles. We got away, but jumping the barbed wired fence my brother NOSM twisted his toe and was seriously hurt. A lot of liquor and some old crazy looking healer put his toe in place for just one dollar! Those were just some of the crazy we experiences we had in Bogota, Colombia, it was definitely an interesting trip.

What are the differences, social and graffiti related, between the continents?
Differences? Economically, all writers come from different backgrounds. For example, I think most writers in South Africa have a decent financial situation. Which means they're able to survive without too much suffering or pain. The last thing you are going to think of is writing when you can't afford clothes or food, let alone a roof over your head. In places like that it's almost impossible to steal paint, so you have to have some cash flow to do elaborate murals. That’s why it's their responsibility to reach out to society and their communities with their images to promote some positive change. One of them is FAITH 47, a great artist and mother. In South America writers are mostly from financially challenged neighborhoods, and are incredibly active and creative. What our so-called “first world” has done to them is reflected in their work, which in our opinion has more political and social depth than most murals in the western hemisphere. Europe and North America compared to other continents have somewhat of a safety net for those in need, so everyone is at least provided with the necessities of a place to live and an education. Also, punishment is usually minimal or non-existent in South America since they have lots of other things to worry about and therefore don't allocate the funds to battle graffiti. Generally, I think they appreciate art more than our countries. Honestly, do you think it is such a bad crime? Who is more of a delinquent, the police officers who take bribes and let us go after metros in Moscow, or us who just break in to do the lay ups? We don’t serve the government for money. Regardless, that's a very complex issue that needs way more time than I have to type this.

Has it been a benefit or handicap to paint in parts of the world where it wasn’t normal at that time? I think you both have often been on your own and couldn’t really rate the consequences, right?
It is not a handicap to be confronted by a situation we have never encountered, we see it as an interesting challenge and task to be solved. We love riddles and the pleasure of solving them on our own with teamwork. Security systems can be advanced as they come, but if the human handling them has no experience with a new phenomenon anything is possible. To be honest, it's really pretty safe to paint without any problems in places like that. The handicap would be the shitty paint you find in those remote places. But a seasoned writer will come up with ways to make those foreign cans work. Paint like that is just more time consuming to use, which raises your risk of getting caught. But we don't care much about consequences. We have to live by the slogan of “you do the crime you have to be able to do the time”. Accepting that is the price of being part of an underground movement. I mean, worry about tomorrow tomorrow, right? If you're scared you shouldn’t put yourself in that position.

Where do you really want to go in the future? And which place has been that great that you definitely want to go back?
We are focusing on a trip to India, and also some other places like Thailand. I guess we really like Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Sydney since we have visited all those places several times. We enjoyed the food, paint possibilities and people.

What mustn’t miss on a journey?
You definitely shouldn't miss out on savouring any of the experiences that you will remember once you're old and grey. But I think the most important part of any journey is meeting interesting people who might become your good friends someday.

Hostel or host. What’s the better way and why?
Staying with a host is definitely the way to go. For one, you do not have to spent a lot of money on a hotel that might be really shitty. And second, you have somebody who knows the city and who knows exactly how things work. You save a lot of time that way and you can feel more comfortable and safe. But I wont deny that a nice hotel can be pretty pleasing now that we're getting older. We've made great acquaintances and friends by travelling like that and had only a few bad experiences.

What’s the state of graffiti in your lives? You already spent a huge part of your lives with spray paint. Are there any negative experiences or private consequences caused of graffiti?
Our priority in life has always been our family and friends. But since we also make a living with our art and have a business here in New York City, graffiti is a huge part in our lives and consumes a lot of time. You have to realize that not only do we paint for the business, but also for our own pleasure. I guess our personal lives have suffered a lot throughout the years, but sometimes sacrifices must be made. It was our way in investing in our future. Age and life experience have taught us many lessons and we now have more normal lives. We both have our private lives that we love. At the end when you look at it graffiti is just what it is. Plain and simple graffiti. Negative experiences have always been the police confrontations and the many arrests. It gets kind of tiring after a while to spend huge amounts of money on lawyers and fines, but nevertheless we have kept doing our thing. Once in a while you just have to take breaks or slow down somehow. That’s when we work on our classic cars with friends that don't know anything about graffiti. Our time off.

This special is focusing on trains and travelling but you are also well known to do huge wall productions with your friends from TATS CRU. Legal, illegal? Does it matter? Or do you prefer one of the other?

Most writers will tell you that painting on trains is the most satisfying part of the whole graff thing. It requires a lot of skills and only those possessing them they are able to do a lot of great looking panels and wholecars. It's not because of the adrenaline boost from the possibility of getting caught by law enforcement, but the moment you see the train by day pulling into the station. It's a great reward and purely the essence of writing. A wall cannot give you all the writing experiences and moments a train does. Don’t get us wrong, we love doing walls and that has now become the focus of our career for the reasons mentioned before, but trains are our passion. Legal or illegal? Choosing one over the other is for us not an option. We do both and always have. We would like to remind those that only paint legal that they have originality missing in what they are doing. You are missing the point of this entire movement. Getting your name up wherever you want, and you can only do that by breaking the law. It’s the message behind the illegal painting and it seems like some people do not care or know. Writing is being more and more distorted from its origins. Doing both just makes you a more dominant writer.

Are there writers who inspired you, and are there any that impress nowadays?
Yes there are. Of course we have our favourite old school writers such as PHASE 2, TRACY 168, BLADE, DAZE, CRASH, DONDI, SEEN, etc... Without the pioneers and writers of the first, second, and third generation none of us would even exist. They developed skills and moves we still use today, like bubbles and arrows. We admire that raw creativity that most take for granted and underestimate. They are the true legends. Our own crew members from TATS inspired us to take the business aspect more seriously, a true inspiration as well. Honestly, there are a lot of writers who inspire us. It doesn’t even have to be an artist and his entire body of work. Sometimes it can just be one single piece. It's hard nowadays to get impressed, especially when you're oversaturated by so much stuff. But we have to mention WON from ABC who is visiting us right now for the fourth time. He just always gives us so much to look at and makes us think about how much we still want to do. His work impressed us back in the days and still does. It's just crazy.

Your pictures are well presented in the internet. There are a lot of writers out there who don’t want their pieces to be published that way. How come, you use this platform to publish your pieces?

Having experienced copyright infringement and publication of our images without permission, we tried to stop most publishing companies from using our stuff. We mostly don't want them using our works because most of them don't contribute to the movement because of their strong support of the artists, but only for their own monetary gain. If we trust you we will release some material for your publication. Then we realised that the internet wasn't following any rules, so we had to somehow combat that before too much of our undocumented artwork was published without our consent. It was really frustrating seeing our walls being posted online when we already had ideas and plans for the images. For example, for our own book. Another reason was that people who we feel really don't deserve any attention were the ones doing it. There are some really tech savvy people out there who know how to exploit via use of the internet. They manipulate, falsify, and faking the graffiti movement. I guess it's also our way of showing those who post one picture over and over that we can post a new photo everyday for years. It’s our modern way of showing that we bomb hard.
Do you think your graffiti career got the attention it deserves? There are not too many writers worldwide that have such a huge photo collection, are there?
I do think we get enough attention, but more is always good. If we hadn’t had the attention we've had, today we still would be happy and doing what we're doing. Attention isn’t our first motivation. Proving to ourselves that we can do more and more all over is. There must be a whole bunch of writers out there with an intense collection of photos that don’t get the attention they deserve. We're just two of them.

You’ve once been voted by the famous German magazine NEON to be two of the 100 most important Germans. Must have been a real honour, wasn’t it?
When we first got the call I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, so started doing some research on the magazine. We finally agreed to contribute after realising that NEON was offspring of the Stern magazine and it might have some credibility. We must admit, we thought it was kind of funny, but also saw the impact it might have. See, you're asking me about it. No, but really, who decides who the most influential Germans are... ?

If you stop writing one day, what would you do then?
I don’t think that we will ever stop painting. It's what we do. We didn’t start doing what we love to do for any other reason then having fun. It's our passion and dedication in life. Sure, certain life circumstances might slow us down, but there will always be some facet of painting around us. It probably wont be illegal forever, but there will definitely be canvas works and some occasional walls if health allows it. Having said that, I don't worry about what we would do then... anything can pay the bills.

Is there anything you want the world to know?
There is no respect to be gained if you do not pay respect.

Shout outs?
We would like to thank everyone who has helped us up to this point. Those in other countries, artists and non artists, and the ones back home. We respect everybody’s art and way of looking at life, even if we don't agree with certain opinions and individuals. Congratulations on your tenth anniversary!!! Peace from HOW and NOSM. TATS CRU, RIGHT AND LEFT.

Thank you!


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Stylefile #30:
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