Rarely does a writer surface that can rock a really wild and technically skillful piece, fresh hand-styles and everything in between with equal amounts of dedication and work ethic. Even more rare is a person who does all this AND is able to deliver venomous verses on the microphone. Enter Topr (aka Bref/Wins), a staple of the early Bay Area hip-hop/graffiti scenes and spray paint and microphone virtuoso. Topr has been putting it down in a multitude of ways since the early days of the golden era, without spreading his efforts thinly whatsoever. Very few people can go so hard in such a number of ways for so long. If his name is not yet familiar, the words that follow will explain why it should be. We took a moment to discuss his history and how life and graffiti have changed along with him over the years.
Bombing Science: Can you tell me a little bit about the crews you push and how you became a member in each of them?
That’s a big question(laughs). The main crews I push are LORDS, CBS, CMA and WST. I am a founding member of PCF which isn’t really active anymore, I came up with the crew name. I also push FTL, AMF and FU. I got down with LORDS because I used to date this really hot raver girl who was super prudish from San Jose and she took me around those dudes. She was like 19 or 20 and I was 15 years old.
The OG LORDS guys from SJ couldn’t believe I was kicking it with her since a lot of them were trying to get at her. I was just a little kid but I was already out on my own. I left home real early. I had a good hand and throw ups and was down to bomb from a young age, I had dropped out of school and was pretty much dedicated to traveling around the Bay Area and getting up. We all went to SF together one night to look at graf and I destroyed Haight street like a maniac and they thought I was a funny kid so they put me down. I hold the record for youngest member ever to get put down, that was in ’93 or ’94. I got on CBS through Rob One when CBS and LORDS first starting building together. Rob came up with 2MEX and the Shape Shifters dudes. We did a few shows together and did a radio spot. Him and I hit it off real well. At the time Anger and Quake were working out a mutual crew swap, I guess Rob threw my name out in the discussion so when it went down I was on the list.
That was in ’98. CMA is my hometown crew from Santa Cruz that HABLO started. I was much younger than the rest of those guys and they kind of took me under their wing when I was still just a weird little street kid. We all ended up in SF eventually, but that’s where that comes from. GUN and WAR put me down on FTL pretty much for the same reason, we all grew up around each other in SC. AMF is High’s crew, it’s the first freight train crew in history. I met him even before I was in LORDS when I was living on the streets in Santa Cruz and he was passing through town. We were reintroduced years later and have been close ever since, he put me down when he saw how much freight work I had been doing as WINS. FU is BIG 5’s crew, when I started painting freights again as WINS he really wanted me to push it, and we go way back so I do. He gave me a lot of support when my wife and I were having hardships during her pregnancy, so I’ll always have love for that dude and his lady WINK. WST I got on through painting a lot with PERVE after ZONE came to visit me here in NC and we all did a production together. ZONE and I both have very similar aesthetics in terms of letter structure and similar philosophies regarding style and tradition. He hooked me up with PERVE and we became real close and eventually they put me down together. I’m honored to be down with the crews I’m in. I’ve never been a crew hopper, I just run in a lot of different circles due to the transient lifestyle I had as a kid, and being on all these crews is just a reflection of that I guess.
How did you come up with each name you’ve written? Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Top Ramen?
I was writing CYPHER in Santa Cruz but I became aware there was a Cypher from TMF in the city already. Back then that type of thing was frowned upon, so I was looking for a new name.
One night me and KEFR PCF took acid and were drawing on napkins at this little hole in the wall drug front café in downtown Santa Crux. At the time I was pretty much living off of Top Ramen since I was homeless and couch surfing, and that’s the only thing any of the UCSC students had to give me to eat because everybody was so broke. I was frying and laughing my ass off over the idea of some poor college kid living off of Top Ramen seeing it written everywhere until he just snapped and killed himself over it. I found that idea hysterical for some reason while tripping my ass off in that grimey café. I started writing it the next day. That was 1994, Eventually I shortened it to TOPR or TOPSKE for efficiency when writing but I still pieced RAMS or RAMEN through much of the 90s. Years later when I moved back to SF from NY around 2001 and went crazy bombing outlines and throw-ups all over the city , the vandal squad at the time had figured out what I wrote and was pressing me super hard, so I switched it to BREF for awhile during my last years in the city. I wrote that because I had notoriously bad hygiene at the time. I was doing more music then so I wasn’t bombing much, and I was pretty hot in SF. After awhile the insanity of my lifestyle there was starting to catch up to me. I saw the writing on the wall (so to speak) regarding the direction the city was heading with the gentrification that was happening and the graf scene with all the drugs and violence, so I decided I wanted to move somewhere to settle down a bit. And focus on graffiti again. I ended up moving to Asheville, NC where I met my wife years earlier.
When we got here I decided I wanted to take a run on the trains but I wanted to start fresh with a new name and see if I could make a name for myself without any preconceptions – start from scratch basically. I was going to write WIL since that’s my given name, but my tags looked too similar to WWL from PCF so I decided to write WIN / WINS / WINER to differentiate myself. I also figured there are worse things to write over and over, so I could have it become like a mantra. That was 2009 and I’ve been pushing that name ever since.
What do you think makes coming up in the Bay Area different from anywhere else and how has it affected you as both a writer and a person?
Well, the bay area, at least until very recently, has always been a counter-cultural hot spot. It’s a place where being an outsider or iconoclast is more accepted on a greater social and cultural level. There is a level of diversity there you don’t see in a lot of different scenes. You have people from all racial, economic and cultural backgrounds kicking it together. That may be more common in graffiti generally compared to other activities, but in my experience its even more extreme in the bay area. The scene was always very open minded in that sense. You would have crews with, lets say, Mexican gangbangers, white punk-rockers, Asian rich kids and black skaters all hanging out together without judgment, who-riding. When I joined LORDS in SJ it was comprised of goths, ravers and fucking gangbangers. Those dudes lived with Peanut Butter Wolf at the time, and would have these huge weekly hip hop house parties. That’s a pretty odd mix for other scenes.
As far as the era I came up with, in the ‘90s, SF was a destination place for writers from other places because the legal ramifications behind vandalism were still pretty tame there. So you had a big influx of writers from other cities before that was a regular thing in other scenes, and that contributed to the melting pot of styles you have there. The city is a small place, easy to get around, so a lot of people were doing a lot of bombing in that small 5 mile radius. I tried to do a little bit more than that since my lifestyle was so transient, so I was getting up in Marin county and the north bay, San Jose, the Peninsula, Co Co county, Fremont, Oakland, etc. Its more spread out than people give it credit for. But everybody has a little different, laid back edge to them there than a lot of other areas. Being an individual is less frowned upon culturally, even turfed out dudes get a little goofy with it in the Bay. You don’t get dudes like Mac Dre or fucking Jello Biafra coming out of other places, you know? And that’s because of our open minded, counter cultural tradition. A lot of art comes out of the bay, and in the ‘90s it was a haven for a lot of great underground art and music.
What do you do to maintain a healthy graff life/regular life balance? Does graff ever get in the way?
Well, I’m lucky because my wife is super supportive of it. She knows what a positive outlet it is for me, plus she isn’t trying to be a part of it or in the mix with it. She knows it’s be my thing, she understands beef and the legality issues involved, but she also sees the difference between my mental health when I’m active as opposed to when I’m not. She sends me to the yard to paint when she thinks that’s what I need to do. She loves my crew, so that helps. She also knows I’m not as wild as I once was, that I am more methodical in my execution and therefore safer. The problem with graffiti is, and the reason why so many of us are drawn to it, is that it is an anti-social activity and most of us, at our core, are anti-social personalities. So the argument goes both ways. Sure it gets in the way of life, it’s a completely bonkers thing to be obsessed about. But probably a lot healthier than the other fucked up things one could gravitate towards with that personality type.
How has your experience in the world outside of graff informed or influenced your graff work and methods of operating? What non graffiti stuff do you look to for inspiration?
When I was working as a builder I learned a lot about how to execute a production or mission with efficiency and professionalism. It taught me to treat what I’m doing like a job. Get up, go to the wall or yard, get it done and do it right then go home. I also look towards a lot of architecture and design for ideas regarding style. I don’t fuck around the same way I used to when I paint. I never get drunk when I’m painting anymore, especially trains. I hate painting with people who don’t enter the yard with purpose and execute. I learned a lot of that from the homie SICR. As with most art, I am inspired by other art but not always visual. I like a lot of music, film and comedy and all that inspires my work to some degree, especially conceptually.
What do you think it takes to really make an impact as a writer aside from quality and quantity? What other things do you think it takes?
Dedication and longevity. Anyone can be the biggest name their city, shit in all of graffiti, for a few years. Even a decade. But I’m pushing forty and I still paint more than most kids do. I may slow down or take a break, but I always come back and I always play to win. As we have unfortunately learned over the years, many times the stars that shine brightest burn out faster than the others. Adaptability is key too. Not many piecers have bombed as much as I have, and not many bombers have as many burners under their belt as I do. When I couldn’t do one, I did the other. Not caring what other people think and getting wrapped up in politics is important, or at least knowing how to navigate those worlds and remain unscathed. Having an interesting personality doesn’t hurt. Not only does it shine through in your work, but if you’re a stand up guy whose good for a laugh, people are more willing to put you on to shit, and that never hurts.
Do you think it’s possible to succeed in the “real world” and also kill it in the graffiti world full time? What complications do you think could arise?
It’s possible, but its rare. To really be an all out legendary name in graffiti you need to dedicate yourself to it 24-7 and who the fuck can do that, work a full time job, take care of their families and still live a positive life? I used to say, “If it doesn’t ruin your life, you’re not doing it right.” If you’re really, I mean REALLY living it, then most likely you’re committing crime to sustain the lifestyle and sacrificing relationships with regular folks a lot of the time. That’s just how it is. But don’t get me wrong, there are people who work full time jobs they hate all day, bomb all night, and grind it out. Those people are the toughest, hardest motherfuckers in the game.
What has graff taught you that you can use in other areas of your life?
If you do anything with a fraction of the dedication and hard work you put towards graffiti you’ll be successful, because graffiti is ridiculous to do. But that’s what makes it so rewarding. Once you put that sort of energy towards something that in the greater scheme of things is so inconsequential, you really can understand what a leg up you have on most squares in the world. The eye for design and perspective I used as a finish carpenter came from graffiti. Graffiti really informed the way I see the world as far as honor and respect is concerned. If you can navigate the waters of ‘90s graffiti politics in California then you are immune to the half ass manipulation and passive aggressive bullshit you may find in any workplace filled with squares and civilians. Anger CBS once told me that graffiti writers are natural chameleons, that the personality type that gravitates towards that lifestyle are able to blend in with whatever other worlds they encounter. I don’t think he was far off in the slightest.
How do you feel about the drug culture in the graffiti writer community? What advice would you give to younger cats just starting to get exposed to this sort of lifestyle?
Like I said earlier, the type of people who gravitate towards graffiti are anti social personalities. Those personalities also gravitate towards drug use. I’ll say this much, after awhile when everybody is sitting around a table doing blow and talking about graffiti more than they are actually doing graffiti, that’s a fucking red flag. I’m not an anti drug guy. I had a lot of good fucking times on drugs. But I have also lost a lot of friends to drugs. And you can’t ever tell who’s going to be able to balance it or not. Or who is going to get deep into it and make it back out. The good times don’t seem worth losing the people I’ve lost. So if you’re a kid who loves graffiti, and you want to be everything you can be in that world, its probably best to focus on the task at hand and not get too distracted. But these are the choices we face on our own terms.
What do you look for when recruiting a new member of your crews?
I was never a big recruiter for my crews. I barely let anyone on any crews until I moved here. But I always felt like the best crew leaders saw potential in people that weren’t fully formed and gave them a chance early on when no one else gave a fuck, and that tends to be rewarded with loyalty and hard work. We live in an era where crew hopping is fucking out of control. My crew is like my family to me because I was literally raised by a lot of these dudes, and to take you into that fold is a very meaningful thing to me. I don’t take it lightly. So first I look for someone who is easy to get along with, that you can trust in a painting situation, someone who knows their shit and will be loyal to the crew. Then I look for talent and potential. Why do they paint? Do they paint because they love it or do they paint because they want to be cool? Will they be around in 10 years? Are they down for their shit? Will they stand up for the crew? All these questions are important. If you’re a stand up dude who knows your shit and is fun to be around, if I feel like I can be family with you for the rest of my life, then I want you in my crew. It helps if they can actually paint though. Being able to handle themselves in a fight doesn’t hurt either.
Graffiti and physical violence sometimes go hand in hand. How has your outlook regarding handling beef with physical repercussions changed as you’ve gotten older?
I don’t know man, its something I go back and forth on. I liked being the big dog in this town; no one really fucked with me. But as time went on, eventually young toys got their feathers ruffled and if someone disses your shit you better be ready to fuck them up over it. Point blank. Graffiti is a full contact sport and if you’re not down to handle your shit you shouldn’t be in the game. That being said, what the fuck I look like beating up a little kid over some graffiti bullshit? The fact is, a lot of these kooks just want the beating their daddy never gave them. Giving them any attention at all just perpetuates the problem a lot of the time. Toys are just trolls. They just want attention from someone they hero-worship because they resent themselves for hero-worshipping you, for wanting to be you. So these days I just fix my shit and not even dis them back because that’s what they want. They want to say that you went over them, that you cared enough to notice them, that they are beefing with you, because they think it legitimizes them. I’m a grown ass man with a wife and child, so I’m not gonna go out of my way to try to risk their well being to fight some kid who will most likely snitch me out for it. I’m not gonna chase you, I’m not gonna stakeout spots and stalk you behind some silly beef you’re not going to stand behind. But when I do catch you slipping? Damn right you’re getting dealt with. That’s what this is. But ultimately, they’ll come and go and I’ll still be here, so why bother? I’ll still be awesome and they’ll still be fucking kooks. Success is the best revenge.
Has becoming a father changed your outlook on graff and life? If so, how?
How can it not? I love my little girl more than I ever thought possible. She already loves graffiti and she LOVES trains. It makes me so proud. She writes on the walls in the house and my wife thinks its funny to make ME tell her to stop. I actually have a pic of her writing on my bedroom wall with a crayon on my nightstand. But I work a lot and she requires a lot of attention, so I don’t get to paint as much as I would like to. I’ve only painted trains a few times since she was born. I don’t want to risk my family’s well being for a couple cars right now. In the next few years when she’s older and her mom is out of school, when I’m at where I want to be in my career, then I’ll be able to do more train and street bombing. But for now it just is not a priority. I still knock out a good amount of legal and illegal pieces. Ultimately, I don’t trip on bullshit the way I used to. I just can’t be bothered with other people’s insecurities or drama. If I’m going to be involved in graff I’m going to paint, otherwise I’m going to spend free time with my little girl, and when I’m painting I don’t want to waste time fucking around. I don’t want to bring negativity into her world. The fact is, children learn from how you carry yourself and your response to the things around you, so it just pushes me to carry myself with honor more than ever; to be stricter about my personal code in order be a better example for her, and to try to rise above petty bullshit. In a lot of ways, I don’t trust people without kids in the game as much as cats with families these days. They get it and know whats at stake.
Who do you think is slept on/deserves more shine and why?
Damn. I don’t even pay attention enough to know who gets shine and who is slept on. I just wish new cats in general would give shine to a lot of the guys who came before them. There just isn’t any sense of history or legacy anymore. My boy GUS LORDS / CBS is one of the best character guys I’ve ever come across. He is well known here but should be followed by more cats. I never thought DEFIE from CBS / LORDS got the attention he deserves for having insanely good hands and piecing style. QUAKE gets shine but as far as his greater influence on so many writers from the bay, I think he gets overlooked. I think my partner FOWL is one of the most original painters on the rails today, but I think people know that. I mean, do they? I don’t fucking know. I’m too busy being elbow-deep in diapers and regret.
How has graffiti affected your family dynamic/homelife?
Well, it was one of the contributing factors to me leaving home as a kid, so as far as my family dynamic then it really fucked everything up. But my family has accepted it. I have a lot of big legal gigs and throw a successful yearly event so that in some way validates it to them. It’s more accepted now than when I started anyway. As far as my family life now, it doesn’t. I mean, my wife is down as fuck with graffiti. She married into the game and she knows that. She’s a rider. She loves my crews and knows that they are a big part of my life, so that’s her family too. She loves graffiti just enough to be down with me doing it because its part of who I am, but not so much that she wants anything to do with it herself or be involved in any way beyond supporting me. Its perfect.
If you could tell your younger self a few things, what would they be and why?
Don’t be afraid to grow up. Paint more. I didn’t really start painting pieces for real until I moved here, and I think it could have really been amazing had I committed earlier. I would have had a much more productive and satisfying “career” if I dedicated my energy towards piecing more early on instead of just bombing and getting fucked up all the time. Don’t get caught up in making the party lifestyle part of your identity, doing what you love really well is more than enough. Have fun but be more focused. Work harder at the things you love because its not enough to just have talent and expect things to work out. Get a job. Finish college. Write things down. I can’t remember half the insane stories I’ve lived through, I wish I had the sense to capture them as they happened, without the distortion of hindsight.
Do you think writers have some level of OCD to be able to write their names over and over? How do you find balance while still pushing hard to get your name out there?
Yeah man, its compulsive behavior but there is a lot of real existential meaning behind it. That’s what people don’t understand. The act of doing something that essentially is screaming “I’m alive” or “I exist” over and over without getting anything else from it beyond personal satisfaction and the respect of a small secret society of peers at the risk of personal well being is a very pure thing. It’s the kind of purity of intent and purpose some people search for their entire lives without ever finding. Is it unhealthy? Maybe. Probably. Not any more unhealthy than any of the other ways humans waste their lives. At least we have that purity of intent and purpose. What do they have? Sitcoms? Yelp reviews? Souvenir key chains and concert t-shirts? I guarantee at the end of the day our stories are better.
How do you feel about the inherent narcissism and ego involved in graffiti culture and how important do you think it is to cultivate humility within yourself and your inner circle?
Since moving to NC the main thing that has kept me grounded is getting back to the core reason why I do this and leaving all the other bullshit on the side. Its very easy to get wrapped up in the drama and egotism that comes with “fame” and the scenester-ism of graffiti. When I moved here the scene was so small that everybody just painted because they enjoyed it, no one was trying to prove anything to anyone, it was painting for the sake of painting so it got back to being fun. It was like being a kid again. But now that is changing with local kids and toys wanting recognition so they act up to try and get a rise out of you, but that’s just kooks projecting their own insecurities on you as opposed to buying into your own hype. I mean, you may think my friends are egotistical assholes, but that’s probably because we think you’re a fucking toy. Get popular. Honestly, I’d rather hang out with someone who thinks they’re the shit and isn’t afraid to tell you than someone who doesn’t know what they are and calls it humility. But I’m more than willing to reach out to younger kids and to school them if they’re open to it. I guess at the end of the day the best way to cultivate humility is to encourage less talking about it at the bar, and more handling business in the yard. Social media is giving people a false sense of accomplishment these days anyway. Best to just keep motivation within your crew.
Since you’re also an emcee, how do the two artforms (lyricism and graffiti) feed off of and inform each other?
I don’t know, for me it’s a one or the other type of thing. When I’m super focused on graff I don’t really do a lot of music and when I’m super focused on music I don’t paint as much. So I never get completely burned out on either, I just jump back and forth. Both are outlets for aggression, both things I do because they make me feel better about myself, and make me feel better about how I fit in the world around me. One is definitely a way to explain the world, to figure it all out and distill those thoughts and ideas into words. The other is more of a way to deal with it, to not think about it. Both have helped define a lot of my identity in regards to my place within the other, if that makes sense? I will say there are a lot of guys who are better rappers than me, and a lot of better writers than me, but no one is as good at both as me. I’m proud of that, even though it doesn’t really fucking matter at all to anybody anyway.
What major differences have you found between painting on the West Coast versus the East?
Not as much gang culture mixing in with everything here. That was always a big aspect of graffiti in California, something you always had to be very aware of. Racking here is easier. Weather is different here, painting in the snow with coolers for your paint and hot water bottles and stuff. With the way the internet is now it’s not like there is different regional development of style or technique or anything. It’s all so homogenized. Ultimately it’s the exact fucking same. It’s all a waste of paint.
Do you have any unique painting stories you could tell us about?
Once stumbling around drunk catching tags in the Mission and I turned a corner right as some dude blasted another dude, I straight up saw him shoot dude down. I still had a can in my hand. He stood there with his gun out and we looked at each other for a split second, I swore he was going to shoot me for being a witness, so averted my eyes, turned and fucking ran back around the corner as fast as I could. I fully expected a bullet to hit me until I was around the next corner. I found out later that the guy died. It fucked me up for awhile. That was around the time I was living at an apartment with my homie’s girlfriend in the Mission and we fucking hated each other. I was bombing pretty hard at the time, it’s when my first wave of friends had passed and I had just moved back from NY with a bunch of money saved, so I just drank all day and bombed all night. I walked up Mission St. from 6th to 26th and did multiple outlines on every roll down and walked back the other side of the street and did the same, all the way back to 6th. TOP TOP TOP TOP TOP TOP. It felt like being Neo in the Matrix. Plus I had throwies on all the corner stores around our apartment, and she hated that I tagged the neighborhood so much once she figured it out. Then someone wrote on a little door next to our entryway “HOE”, I think it was LOG DOG’s side name at the time. She thought I did it and was trying to dis her or some shit. So she would always be giving her boyfriend – who is one of my closest friends – shit for it. It just got unbearable to live there after awhile. She tried to “confront” me about it eventually and that was the last straw. I painted a big fill in on the entire front of our building and wrote “MY ROOMMATE IS A CUNT” in the middle of my O. I was soon homeless again after that. This last weekend I was painting a paid gig at a spot they were still doing a bunch of construction at. I got into it with the guy who was grading the courtyard I was painting in with a backhoe about who had more right to be there. After he started being cool I told him I would move my stuff to the other corner while he finished. After he was done, I went back and finished my piece, took flicks, said my goodbyes and got in my car to leave. When I went into my jacket to get my keys, they were gone. I instantly knew what happened, “fuck no… no no no NO!” and looked at GUS. Without even having to say anything more he looked at me and said, “No way man. There’s no way”. Sure enough, my keys had been buried by the backhoe in front of my piece. I’m a have to go back with a metal detector or some shit (laughs). Too many fucked up stories man.
Any last shout outs?
DREAM RIP, RENOS, TEMPT, PASHE, QUAKE and ZONE for being huge influences on my graffiti stylistically, all the LORDS, CBS, CMA,WST, PCF, FTL, AMF, FU, UM dudes for being the family. My rap crews GURP CITY and the EARTHLINGS. My South East homies FOWL, GUS, SICR, ZIAN, PERVE, BERTH, MELT, CREED, DAZE TN, TREK6, HORACE, REDES, LEDER, HOULA, STUTR… too many to name. Rest in Peace to the many people I’ve lost along the way. Far too many to name as well, unfortunately. All the love in the world to my wife and daughter.
Cop my new album, TOPR “The Afterlife of the Party” dropping Feb. 2017
To follow TOPR head to his instagram
By Paul Lukes