Rok TCS – DH interview
by Pietro Rivasi & Teppism. Translated by Teppism

Rok is a legendary graffiti writer who has been active since the early 90s. The prolificacy and ability to exploit the characteristics of the surfaces he paints make him one of the most popular names on Italian railway lines for the past 30 years.

Rok TCS – DH interview




Rok TCS – DH interview
by Pietro Rivasi & Teppism. Translated by Teppism

Rok is a legendary graffiti writer who has been active since the early 90s. The prolificacy and ability to exploit the characteristics of the surfaces he paints make him one of the most popular names on Italian railway lines for the past 30 years.

Pietro Rivasi (PR): In spite of coming from a quite small city, you are one of the first Italian bombers, and without a doubt, the most hardcore. Can you tell us how you became interested in writing?

I started painting right at the beginning of the 90s. A few days ago, I found a picture I did with a spray can stencil which depicted little men similar to those of Keith Haring, and it was probably the first time that I had ever touched spray. I was at kindergarten – I must have been 4 years old – and the teachers made us do this experiment as that sort of imagery was very fashionable in the 80s.

Lo stencil realizzato all'asilo. Courtesy of the artist.
The kindergarden’s stencil. Courtesy of the artist.

Seeing it again, it is also somewhat reminiscent of Mario Schifano. Apart from this anecdote, which doesn’t have much to do with it, I started out doing graffiti alone in 1991. At the time, Wild Style was broadcast on Rete 4 (an Italian TV network). What a coincidence to have seen it! There were no streaming platforms, no possibility of renting video cassettes or downloading from the web back then, so to see anything involved sitting in front of the TV at the right time. Those kinds of movies were usually late at night because they weren’t exactly mainstream content. So, it was an incredible coincidence that I saw it.

Another coincidence that happened a little later was meeting Ryal, Che, and Eron, which must have been, in 1992. Ryal was painting on wooden panels (thanks to some connections) and Che was staying with him. I happened to be passing by and stopped to talk to Eron (who, at the time, signed Nore and would later reverse the letters). Eron was in town for compulsory military service and had also stopped because someone was painting. This is how we all met!

Two times Rok and two times Eron pieces, mid 90s. Rok’s archive
Che - metà anni '90. Foto archivio Rok
Flunitrazepam – Che mid 90s. Rok’s archive
Ryal - metà anni '90. Foto archivio Rok
Ryal – mid 90s. Rok’s archive

After so many years, and despite the fact that our styles are very different now, I have a lot of respect for Eron, who remains a fixed point for me, a milestone. Now we don’t see each other so often, but we are always in touch and I’m really pleased that we will both take part in an exhibition, starting in May 2023 at the Museum of the City of Rimini. Ryal, on the other hand, became a Franciscan friar. After two years of seclusion, he went to South America, in the midst of the favelas, to help poor children. He kept a hardcore attitude, but now he expresses it in a different way!

So again, what a coincidence that in 1992, in a city that had less than 100,000 inhabitants, I randomly met these three guys on the evening they were painting. Whilst chatting, I learned that even Ryal started after seeing Wild Style on TV. Who knows how many people throughout Italy were inspired by watching that film on Rete 4 that night!

TCS crew 1991/1992. Foto archivio Rok
TCS crew 1991/1992. Rok’s archive.
TCS Crew 1991/1992. Foto archivio Rok
TCS Crew 1991/1992. Rok’s archive.
38 Squad - Nore TCS, 1991/1992. Foto archivio Rok
38 Squad – Nore TCS, 1991/1992. Rok’s archive.
Intervista alla TCS crew su Report 0, 1995.
TCS crew interview on Report 0, 1995.

Teppism (T): There is a historic piece of yours, at least for the writers of your hometown, where you wrote “Mezzo” on the wall of an apartment building with a fantastic character, close to the style of Bando & Mode2, and very different to the style you are known for. You also wrote a quote by KRSOne in it, “by any means necessary“. Back then it became a pilgrammage destination for your fans. What memories can you share of that time?

Yes, it’s true, we spent several nights working on it, more than a week if I remember correctly. I painted with others I knew from the arcade, where I hung out and did some of my first pieces. The others kept watch and warned me if cars were coming. If cars approached, I hid behind the wall and once they passed, their whistle told me I could continue.

Mezzo di Rok, primi anni '90. Foto archivio Rok
Mezzo (Mean) by Rok, early 90’s. Rok’s archive.

The sentence I had written was not referring to KRS One but to Malcolm X because I think I had seen the film at the time.

Is it true that Bates stayed with you or is that an urban legend?

Absolutely true. He had come to a Jam in Rimini and on the last night he had no place to stay, so I hosted him at my house. My mum saw him and told me, “if all the people who do graffiti are that nice-looking, go ahead and bring them over!”
The last time we saw each other was in Copenhagen on the inter rail…It was 1995.

(PR): I remember seeing one of your wholecars, which was truly innovative for the time: colored pieces and a silver background..

Sure, I did it with Sugo from Rome. Coincidence also played an important role with him: we met at Indelible, in Rimini, when MT2 and ETC had not yet merged to give life to the TRV. He told me that he was frequently in town to visit his grandmother, so we started hanging out. One evening, I proposed that he go to an excellent yard nearby, as he was at that point a train virgin. So we got ready to do something big: a whole car. However, at the Brico Center, there were no colours, only silver. You have to remember that at the time there were no dedicated shops, and graffiti sprays were still an absolute novelty, essentially unobtainable. We stole all the silver we could and made a top-to-bottom background of coloured pieces. Among other things, I remember the next morning I had to skip school so we could go all the way to Genoa to try to take pictures. This involved taking the train without a ticket, going there, waiting for the doors to close. Maybe, the photo I took had the door open because it was on the other side I don’t know, I don’t remember anyway, that whole car was a 24 hour mission. We had to have so much attitude otherwise we would never have spent so much time and energy on it.

Sugo TRV e Rok TCS DH 1997
Sugo TRV and Rok TCS DH, 1997

(T): Another very innovative thing, that I remember about those years, was the fact that you were one of the first, and perhaps one of few, that painted with friends who were not necessarily part of the graffiti scene. How did these collaborations come about?

It’s just how I am – I always bring along the people who I spend the most time with. Most of the time, these are not writers so at some point, I “oblige” them to write! It happened with Che, with Sosty, with Gec

Rok e Sos - DH, Bologna Ravone, metà anni '90. Foto archivio Rok
Rok TCS – DH & Sos, Bologna mid 90s. Rok’s archive.
Rok e Sos - DH, Bologna Ravone, metà anni '90. Foto archivio Rok
Rok TCS – DH, Bologna mid 90s. Rok’s archive.

(PR): You were also one of the very first to have international contacts in a period where letters were written to each other, when home telephone numbers were published on the few existing graffiti fanzines, and to go inter rail..

In addition to Fume, whom I met in the early 90s thanks to the Romans, I remember that I came into contact with Krash from Barcelona because I met Mookie, a writer from the previous generation and the first from Barcelona. We wrote letters to each other and didn’t know if they would even arrive. “Hi, I’m Rok, I’m Italian and I paint trains. I’ll send you some photos for Game Over” then the whole summer would pass by, and then a letter would arrive in September with a Spanish postage stamp, and it was Mookie’s answer with his photos. They were obviously printed – only analogue photos were taken as digital was still far away at that point.

Biglietto inter rail 1995. Archivio Rok
1995 inter rail ticket. Rok’s archive.
Clideism - Barcellona 1993
Clideism, Barcelona 1993.
Retro della foto di Clidelism di Mookie (editore di Game Over), 1993. Archivio Rok
Backside of the Clideism photo by Mookie (Game Over editor), 1993. Rok’s archive

It was cool, there was more romanticism – no comparison with today: now you can paint a wholetrain in New York and watch it live. Same thing for discovering places. When I started to understand where the depots were, especially in small towns, I studied the train timetable, the one with the yellow cover… the Pozzo Orario!

L'orario cartaceo dei treni che prima dell'avvento di internet veniva usato dai writer per risalire ai luoghi di sosta notturna dei treni
Trains’ paper timetable which, before the advent of the internet, writers used to trace the overnight stops of trains

For example, if you were looking for the Reggio Emilia – Suzzara line you could discover when the last train was to arrive in Suzzara at a certain time and assume it could (maybe) be there for the night. So, I would take my Renault 14 and go looking around the villages and sometimes I found them, sometimes I discovered that they came back, were turned off, and put out of service… Anyway, this is how I discovered most of the small yards. That’s how it worked and it was cool.

Pum SDT - IT dalla Francia, pubblicato su Xplicit Grafix 8. Sulla destra si vedono la tag e le dediche di Rok. Courtesy of Xplicit Grafx
Pum SDT – IT from France, as seen on Xplicit Grafix issue 8. One the right is possible to spot Rok’s  tags. Courtesy of Xplicit Grafx and the artist.
Pum - Rok - Honet da Italy's most Wanted 2, 2004. Courtesy of Italy's most Wanted
Pum – Rok – Honet as seen on Italy’s Most Wanted issue 2, 2004. Courtesy of Italy’s Most Wanted and the artists.
Honet da Sickopats 1, 1997. Courtesy of the artist and Sickopats Magazine
Honet as seen on Sickopats issue 1, 1997. Courtesy of the artist and Sickopats Magazine

I went inter railing with Done in 1995. It was great because whilst they had the zones in place, you could also get the total package and so I remember that if you were staying in Madrid but you were pissed off, you could take a train at night and wake up in Paris. So it was nice because however bad it was, you could sleep on the train and not have to stay on the road. We’ve spent a bit of time everywhere: Barcelona… Copenhagen… the trip there was cool. I went back to Barcelona once on a moped…!

Rok a Barcellona, 1995. Courtesy of the artist and Report Trainzine 1
Rok on a Cercanias train in Barcelona, 1995. Courtesy of the artist and Report Trainzine issue 1
Biafra di Done a Barcellona, 1995. Courtesy of the artist and Report Trainzine 1
Biafra by Done on a Barcelona cercanieas train, 1995. Courtesy of the artist and Report Trainzine issue 1
Zerok e Krash a fianco di Rok e Biafra, Barcellona 1995. Foto archivio Rok
Zerok and Krash next to Rok and Biafra, Barcelona 1995. Rok’s archive.

(PR): Before 1997, Bologna‘s suburban train line (Suburbana) was painted quite sporadically as far as I know. Do you have any memories of the first time you painted it?

I think the first Suburbana I painted was during Indelibile in the now defunct San Vitale train yard. We were returning from the Rimini jam and stopped to paint before continuing north.

Heko - Sugo - Rok, 1995. Foto archivio Rok
Heko – Sugo – Rok, 1995. Rok’s archive

There was only TCS at this point, as DH hadn’t formed yet, so it was me, Ciufs, Hestro (from ETC), Stand MT2, Heko, Eron, Fume (from Germany), and Deko164 who wrote Device. Unfortunately there are only bad photos of that train ride because we painted whilst being squeezed between two trains and there was no way to get daytime photos. In those years, when the writers had not yet conquered the line, it was easy for them to buff the trains quickly.

Heko e Fume si riposano davanti alla stazione di Bologna il mattino dopo aver dipinto la Suburbana. Foto archivio Rok
Heko & Fume have some rest in front of Bologna’s central station the morning after the Suburbana train action. Rok’s archive.
Device di Deko164 - Suburbana di Bologna. Courtesy of the artist and Report Trainzine
Device by Deko164 on a Bologna Suburbana train. Courtesy of the artist and Report trainzine
Hestro ETC, Suburbana di bologa. Foto archivio Rok
Hestro ETC on a Bologna Suburbana train. Rok’s archive

(PR): How was DH crew born instead?

DH began sometime later during the times of Livello 57 in via Stalingrado. Gino X lived there, along the tracks – he was always with Ciufs, who was someone I became good friends with after Tinte Forti. We often painted, so in 1996 we formed a crew together. It happened just before going to a jam in Pisa which would later become historical for the participation of Phase II, the first edition of Panico Totale. Ciufs, Gino X, maybe Longe (who was starting to paint trains seriously at that time) took a car together. I think that’s the case, though it’s not easy to remember everything.

Rok e Dork FTR - PR al Panico totale di Pisa, 1996. Foto courtesy of Casseur foundation
Rok and Dork FTR – PR at Panico totale jam, Pisa 1996. Courtesy of th artists and Casseur foundation

In 1996 to 1997, I enrolled to study in philosophy in Milan with Costanza, a friend who wrote Sos or Sosty. She had a house in Bologna and also knew Ens so we ended up leaving Milan to move to the University of DAMS in Bologna. It was here that we met Gec at one of the many parties and raves we attended and began to all spend a lot of time together. It was a delirium of celebrations and parties. Costanza’s house was the “base of operations” for me, Gec, and Ens. I don’t think I ever attended DAMS even for a class, except to steal something. Gec still wasn’t painting, so I threw him in the middle and he became part of DH too. Bologna, at that time, was the capital of techno – not even in Rome were there so many parties. SpiralTribe and OQP had also settled there for a while. The first party in the woods I went to in my life was at Sasso Marconi. There was a period when at least once a month, there was a rave at Livello 57 that lasted several days. In Bologna these were the years of Livello 57 when was right in front of the train yard so there was a lot of painting going on. I’d then go home at weekends, and I’d paint then too, always going back and forth on the train. Sometimes I’d wake up in Turin, then fall asleep, wake up in Ancona… at the time, if you didn’t have a ticket, they didn’t kick you out.

Lego - Chob - Gec - Rok e2e, circa 1997. Collage realizzato con frame di video Hi8, archivio Rok
Paul by Chob – Basik – Gec – Rok 1997ish end to end. Hi8 video stills collage, Rok’s archive.
Lego - Chob - Open - Rok - Gec e2e in Ravone, circa 1997. Collage realizzato con frame di video Hi8, archivio Rok
BasikChob – Open – Rok – Gec 1997ish end to end. Hi8 video stills collage, Rok’s archive.

(PR): You are well known for your panels, tags and throw ups but few perhaps know that for a while you have done more experimental things, that you have a decidedly more open vision than one might expect. Can you tell me about it?

Between 1999 and 2000, I had some personal problems, and I seized that moment to leave Bologna, which had become an unhealthy place for me, and go home. At that stage, I practically stopped painting, maybe I did one panel a year or a little more, but certainly not as assiduously as before.

However, I have always remained interested in art in general and I am the type of person who gladly goes to the Biennale (even if I do not possess the profound understanding that I have for the world of writing). But then in 2002-2003, Banksy’s books such as Cut it Out, Existencilism, Bang Your Head Against A Brick Wall were published and the first “different” things compared to “classic” graffiti began to appear, the so called “street art”. To be clear, I looked at everything with curiosity: it seemed like a new trend, that was, on closer inspection, starting from within the graffiti movement. In short, I happened to read an interview with Stak, where he talked about a “logo as a name” and this thing of replacing the signature with a logo struck me as I had created my own, a kind of symbol of the TAO. I printed 12 at a time with a plotter, half positive and half negative, and then cut them out with scissors. Carrying hundreds of these pieces of paper and the spray glue (that at the time was distributed by the same companies that sold the colours), I started sticking them everywhere: first on the street, and then even on the trains. And they were very difficult to unstick: the glued paper was much more aggressive than the paint, so they remained on the street and on the trains. I always had them with me and I attached them everywhere, even abroad. Instead of tagging, I attached the logos. This period went on for two or three years, I don’t remember exactly. Sometimes I only wrote messages, or I only stuck on the logo instead of painting the panel. I once painted a whole black panel then glued mirrors stolen from Leroy Marlin onto it, then I wrote “every time you clean a train, look at your faces”. The cleaners then took off all the mirrors and wrote on them “Fuck you, shitty vandals”. It was cool because it elicited a reaction and an interaction with my piece.

Rok intervista su Backspin Magazine 2008/2009, courttesy of Mark Todt & Backspin Magazine
Part of the Rok’s interview on Backspin Magazine 2008/2009, courtesy of Mark Todt, Backspin Magazine and the artist
Rok intervista su Backspin Magazine 2008/2009, courttesy of Mark Todt & Backspin Magazine
Part of the Rok’s interview on Backspin Magazine 2008/2009, courtesy of Mark Todt, Backspin Magazine and the artist

Then, in 2009, Moratti launched her gigantic anti-graffiti campaign where Milan was covered with 6mx3m billboards with the slogan “if they did it to you?”, I re-designed some of the posters with Moratti’s face on and the words “if they did it to me?” leaving a marker attached on a string. I had attached a few in the Navigli area, and if you came back after a week or two, you found them covered in writing like Bitch, I want my pension… they even set fire to one! On another, they added an eyepatch to her face and wrote thief on it.

In short, people related and interacted – I ended up recovering one and brought it home. I think they were interesting experiments because they involved people who participated in the action, interacted, and respected it because hardly anyone stole the marker. They left it so that others could write too. In any case, after this period I resumed painting as always, even if it was to do something different from the classic graffiti or canvasses.

(PR): Is there anything in particular that happened to you in the early years of painting that, looking back on it, would have turned out very different if it had happened today?

Well years ago, things were really different, worse than today. For example, when we went to paint in Ancona, it must have been 1994 – I was 16. I took the train by myself, 4500km from home. There were no cell phones, there was shit. We went to paint at the post office and there were stray dogs near the port that roamed around in packs at night and one evening we had to take refuge under an overturned boat to avoid being attacked. We had to wait for them to leave – they even came up to where we were in the middle of the trains. Now, there are maybe cameras and sensors, but you’d have to go somewhere truly forgotten to even find stray dogs that want to eat you. I don’t even know if you can go around on trains at night nowadays if you’re a minor. I think the first thing the inspector does is call your parents and warn the polfer!

However, when you were hundreds of kilometres away from home, not only did you need to have the coins in your pocket to make a call, and a SIP token, you’d also have to do so at exactly the right time to be sure that someone at home would answer. There were no SMS or Whatsapp. It was strange, and much better now for certain things.

TCS Crew 1994 - Courtesy of the artists e AL Magazine numero 10
TCS & BH Crews 1994 – Courtesy of the artists and Aelle Magazine issue 10

I honestly don’t know if we really took any risks. It seemed much more common to go around alone back then, even as a child, and perhaps people helped each other more. Anyway, today I don’t know if would be possible for kids to roam around as much as I did at night.

(PR): You showed me some crazy relics from the Rome metro…

I’ve always had a good time in Rome and always appreciated its style and attitude, especially TRV and ZTK. I was even there a few weeks ago. So when I had the opportunity to take some of its history home, I did: 2 full Metro B doors with Ver and Poison chunks, UV acid tags, and more. The incredible thing is that Ver is a very good friend who I think I met over the internet, but NSA crew is more connected to my historical Roman friends, ETC, MT2 and ZTK and in the end it’s always them, even if the various crews represent different generations. One of the doors that I found was painted in 2004 on the very night Ver turned 23. A truly incredible coincidence and something that I wanted to take away with me, even though it was quite tiring!

Metro B con pezzi del 2004 di Jon ZTK e Ver NSA. Sulla destra si può notare la scritta "23 years old" di Ver.
Rome B line subway car with 2004 pieces by Jon ZTK and Ver NSA. On the right “23 years old” by Ver.
Vagone della metro con la porta smontata, circa 2010. Courtesy of the artist
Rome subway B line wagon without the door, circa 2010. Courtesy of the artist
La porta della metro di Roma smontata
The pieced Rome subway B line door removed.