A New Haven Tagger Spills His Secrets
For Troubledclef, the blank walls, untagged skateparks and underpasses didn’t call out immediately. Nor the cans of spray paint, waiting to be opened as they beckoned from convenience store aisles. Nor the sense of brethren-by-graffiti, a motley crew of artists and mischief-makers who would come out in the wee hours of the morning, and finish their work by 4 a.m.
Instead, it was a doodle in his older brother’s notebook, a design he worked on while the two were in a foster home together. It was a dream to go to art school that had to sit on the back burner for a while. Now, the tagger who claims to be behind “Crud” and “Old”—who asked to be referred to as Troubledclef or “just the guy with the music note”—is opening up about the work, and why it falls somewhere between art and vandalism. That interview is below.
Let’s start at the beginning. What got you into art? Like, way before these tags?
So, I’ve always been into art. You know, I’ve always wanted to get into some kind of art school since I was a kid. But it turned into a lost dream, the way I grew up. So I started spray painting. I ended up meeting this girl. We had a baby. She ended up leaving me, and I kind of went crazy.
Can we unpack that?
When did you think that you were interested in art school?
Since I was young, really. Ever since I could doodle. I grew up a little bit in New Haven, a little bit in Chicago, Milwaukee. Waterbury, East Haven. My earliest memory is seeing my brother drawing a robot. My older brother. We were in a foster home together, so he was looking out for me, showing me how to do stuff. Building blocks, tying my shoes, things like that. We looked out for each other.
He was always the one that was drawing and showing me how to draw. He got me into it. Like, I used to just do scribble-scrabble. But my earliest memory is me helping him color in a robot. I had to be like five. We were in a foster home in East Haven. After that we got separated, so it was kind of just me just drawing by myself afterwards.
Do you want to talk about that?
No. Not really.
Okay. And what kind of designs were you making?
I drew roses. Sometimes I just drew a bunch of color on the paper. Bubbles—regular bubbles, the bubbles that you blow. I tried drawing birds. I was not too successful with birds. But I could draw ‘em. The stick figures, I like drawing them in notebooks and making them animated?
Like old-school stop-motion?
Yeah. You know how you flip the notebooks? I’d make them run into walls and stuff. Or he’d be falling, and then he’d hit the ground and look around. Or—I learned this from my teacher—we’d take the stick figures and put them on the wall, and take a picture of them, and put them on the computer. We’d make a story like that. That was in Dwight School. We did it in Truman [School] too.
And did it—like, did the drawings just get bigger and bigger? The way you were thinking about them, how did that change?
It changed by my mood. What I was going through. I was probably 11 or 12 … and they changed by my mood. By the things I saw around. I’d take like a tree and I’d make it into like an angry face. Or anything. Like, I’d take an eyeball and put a picture in it. That’s my favorite thing—I can do eyes really good.
What’s inspiring you? Are you looking at other artists? Books? Do you dream super vividly?
Yeah—I have lucid dreaming a lot. Sometimes I’ll be laying in bed and I can’t move. It’s more of sleep paralysis. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It’d be like, going around the city sometimes, in my head. It’s so real. I see colors. You can make anything happen in those dreams.
Like, I’ll be running. I know I’m laying down and I know I’m dreaming at the same time, but I’ll be running and I’ll jump up and I’ll feel like I’m flying. And I’ll fly again, and then I’ll touch the ground. All I gotta do is leap and I’ll be flying again. It’s crazy.
Sometimes it’ll be bad, though. Because you feel like there’s something creeping in on you, and you can’t breathe. And you’re trying to get up … you’re trying to scream and you can’t. You’re trying to wake yourself and you can’t. Then it’ll turn into a nightmare.
And has that always been the case?
Yeah. I was lucid dreaming last night, when I went to sleep.
So did you start spray painting before the “OLD” tag?
Yeah. I started spray painting around 13. There was a group of us in Waterbury—we were in a group home out there. I went from a group home to a foster home back to a group home. So I met a friend of mine named Phoenix—they call him Phoenix because most of his body’s burnt. He has like third-degree burns. But he was a really cool kid. A good skateboarder too.
He showed me these really cool spots we could go spray painting at. His tag was “Spit”—S.P.I.T. I guess we all made our own tags. I did “Crud” and “Dap.”
You’re Crud? I’ve wanted to know who Crud was since I moved here.
Yeah. And my boy does “Daper.”
We gotta go back to Crud! I thought it was just a pretty current tag.
It’s been around a while. I’ve been doing it five, six years. Maybe longer.
How did you come up with it?
I don’t know. I was just pissed one day—I had an argument with my mom over the phone. I just … it made me want to curse. Somebody was like: “Watch you mouth.” I was like: “Crud.”
Like, “Aw, crud.” You ever seen that old cartoon, KND? They got a treehouse. And they’re like secret agents, but they’re kids, right? And they fight adults because they don’t want to grow up.
Well that [tag] is all over the place. For people who get angry about graffiti, what would you say to them? Especially if the police, law enforcement are on it. What would you say to them?
Stop being so shallow! Not everything needs to be black and white. That’s boring. I see the world—it needs more color in it nowadays. Back when I was growing up, everything had a little more life to it. Now that I’m older, things are less lively. You know?
What are some of the places that you wanted to tag? Not just as “Crud,” but also as “Old?”
I usually do bus stops—anywhere I’m at that I see a blank space that needs to be covered.
I feel like graffiti artists often get a bad rep, though. Like, folks say “why are these people coming into my neighborhood, defacing public property…”
But there’s a meaning behind all of it. Me, personally, I do “Old” because everything around me is changing. I’m getting older, and I want people to see that the shouldn’t be afraid of getting older. Like, just see the beauty in it. You know?
There’s a couple meanings behind it. O.L.D. I put a dot in between each one [letter] sometimes. Or I’ll put a halo above it. It’s “Only legends dream.” The first meaning I had was “Only love, Dena.” Which was the mother of my daughter.
That’s the reason I started doing it. That’s no longer the meaning behind it. I changed it, because I wanted to erase that hurt in myself. I wanted to define it. Now, it’s one long day.
How long have you been doing that tag?
For a long time. I was like, used to do just one—just me by myself. And then I did “T.M.F.” for “Too Many Fakes,” out in Milwaukee. When I came back here, I was 15, started doing it then.
There was a good 20 notebooks that I left in a building that disappeared. With all these drawings. Points to notebook. This is going to be my new tag, right here. Ever More. You know what that’s from? The tag reads “Ever More.”
Like Poe? I thought he was “Never More.”
I changed it. My favorite thing that Poe ever said was that to write is human, not to write is divine. I’ve always wanted to be a writer—but then again, drawing is kind of like writing a story. You know what it means as soon as you look at it instead of having to go through the whole book.
Do you like that poem, The Raven?
How do you relate to it?
I just like it. My girlfriend used to read it. My ex.
Yeah. It’s like a … it’s like a voice I heat in my head when I go to sleep at night. A lullaby.
Poe is such an interesting guy. Life wasn’t kind to him. Did you … was that something you seized on?
Yeah. He dropped out of school (he was, in fact, forced to drop out). I forgot the guy’s name, but someone picked him up and started showing him poetry. That’s how he got into it.
It’s kind [the same thing] with me. Like, I was really bad at a lot of things and somebody, I’m not going to say who, they picked me up basically and started showing me things. So in a way, I’m going to try to do the same things … my motive if to help the kids that need it. There are plenty of kids out there that have a vision, and they want something better in their life.
This is a place where you can get the direction. I’m like a light. I can show you where to go. I can bring you to the water, I just can’t help you drink. I’ll make sure you find your way though, best as I can.
When do you tag?
I tag at night. I have a curfew now, so it’s harder. But usually like three in the morning. I’ll go eye out a spot during the day. My friends will tell you—I’ll find it during the day and come back at night. A clean wall, you know?
Some of my spots, I was looking for them the other day, they covered them. The best ones, too.
How do you feel about that?
Aw, I was pissed. You covered it up to put nothing there? This is like so bland—you should just put something on there. Even carpet. So it has some kind of design to it. You know? I don’t like being in a boxed white room either. Makes me feel like I’m stuck somewhere.
So do you think the city should be hiring more graffiti artists for public art projects? We have this problem, where there are people who need jobs in the city, and some of them are talented artists. But there are limited resources. Like there’s the Hi-Crew mural under I-91…
Yeah! The rubber ducky.
Yeah! And no one messes with it, because people respect Hi-Crew. But do you think the city should be coming to more artists and saying “paint our spaces?”
Yeah! I think they should. I think our city would be a lot nicer. I have rules. Businesses, I won’t paint em. Establishments, schools—I won’t touch them. Unless they really do something to piss me off. But otherwise, it’s not right.
I think they [the city] should have more people painting. But not just anything. Have a story. You know, like, make a picture of what’s going on around us nowadays.
You know, have you been to the [New Haven] Green lately?
Yeah. All the time.
If somebody were to paint a picture of that, people would look at it and say “dang.” You could paint one side of what it could be like, and one side of what it’s like now. So it’s like, people will see the difference and you could change it.
And do you think that would take the cool element away? Now, graffiti still has this outsider factor.
It would. I mean … yeah, you’re right. It wouldn’t be as fun, because you wouldn’t be afraid of getting caught. I like to go and buy my own tops. Like spray paint cans.
See, I’ve never been caught. I mean, I’ve been in juvenile. (He knocks on the table three times). I’m not jinxing myself. I got criminal mischief one time. If I would have got caught with a spray can that day, I would have got destruction of property. You know, vandalism.
That’s not really a big charge. You get a slap on the wrist, as long as you’re not a repeat offender.
And so what’s next? “Ever More?”
I guess I’m still trying to define that one. It’s more emotional attachments. If my daughter ever comes to this city, and she looks around, I want her to know someday that all that was done by her father. Like, “Wow, my dad did this?” Maybe, she’ll know.
Do you want to stay in New Haven?
Yeah. I’ll let me daughter find me.
Where is she now?
I have no clue.
Do you want to talk about that?
No. It’s … it’s everything right now.
When you’re out there painting, does the city feel right? Or not right?
It feels … I get lost in it. And no one knows you. You know everybody, but no one knows you.
Just New Haven, or every city?
Every city. No matter where you go. It’s like, you see people but you don’t really see them, because you don’t know who they are. To see a person, you have to know who they are, right? Like, I see you right now. But I can’t see the inner you. I’d have to be around you for a little while. People just don’t open up freely.
I’m quoting the Bible. It says: “If I were to lay down my life and give of my body to be burned, but I know not love, I would do so in vain.”
Are you religious?
I wouldn’t say so. I believe in Jesus, but religious is a chain that binds you down. Salvation sets you free. You know, that’s my belief.
Why would I follow something that puts shackles on my life when Jesus came to set me free?
Don’t you think Jesus was kind of punk rock? Like, in a good way?
Yeah. I know that he had a personality.
But what do you think he would say about your graffiti?
Thou shalt not paint! He laughs. No.
I mean, he gave us free will for a reason. There’s nowhere in the Bible that says … well it says “follow the law,” but what law is there that prevents me from doing art? Art is art no matter which way you want to look at it.