The Writing on the Wall

He tagged an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo, and an airplane carrying the Jackson Five after it landed in Philadelphia. His wall name is “Cornbread,” the Philadelphia graffitist who started a movement that defines the

He tagged an elephant in the Philadelphia
Zoo, and an airplane carrying the
Jackson Five after it landed in Philadelphia.

His wall name is “Cornbread,” the
Philadelphia graffitist who started a movement

that defines the modern day-graffiti artist- and he only started tagging to
show his love interest for a girl.

“[Cornbread] is the godfather of
graffiti. He has the right to say he started the concept of putting paint to the walls before it happened in New York, and then it moved and spread there and got louder,” said Erick Cohen, owner of Rarebreed, a graffiti hiphop store at 530 S. 15th St.

Ask Temple Urban Studies professor
Roman Cybriwsky and, like Cohen,
he’ll tell you name-tagging graffiti started in Philly – not New York like most would assume.

“It’s the biggest controversy of whether it started here or in New York,”
Roman said.

While New York City gained graffiti
notoriety for its flamboyant underground
subway designs, in Philadelphia during
the 1960s, Cornbread reigned as the supreme
graffiti artist known for his hard-toreach

“Cornbread had a distinctive penmanship.
He wrote everywhere and people started to claim to be him,” said Cybriwsky, who partnered with University of British Columbia Professor David Ley to write the article “Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers,” published in 1972. “This was because he was sort of a ‘folk hero.’ He wrote on a plane, and an elephant at the zoo. That was the challenge – and you
get your name in the paper, your picture
[and] your work, and everybody says,
‘Hey, way to go.'”

In Philadelphia during the 1960s and
70s, graffiti was a way for gangs and different racial groups to express tension and conflict between them.

“Gangs would mark off their turfs
with graffiti, like the name of the gang
or the initials of the gang,” Cybriwsky explained.

“You could also establish where territories were in conflict, like by reading the walls and seeing the symbols of the gang.

“There was a correlation between school children’s absence from school and the gang territory they would have had to cross. You can compare dates on absenteeism in school and the warnings written on the wall.”

Cybriwsky identified three ways in which graffiti was used: to mark gang territory, to express feelings toward the ethnic and racial change and to gain personal name recognition.

He classified those who wanted recognition
as a “graffiti loner,” which is equivalent to a tag artist today. Like Cornbread did, that person would try to gain attention from the bizarre places they could tag. The goal is to get the farthest away, and to be the most extreme. Cornbread, whose real name is Darryl McCray, scribbled his first tag, “Cornbread loves Cynthia,” in an attempt of wooing his crush at the time.

The two parted ways, but Cornbread, chosen by McCray because he really liked his grandmother’s cornbread, stuck and eventually made history. Thanks to Cornbread, tagging “on the wall” began and grew in Philadelphia. Cornbread has said that he is a “graffiti writer,” not as an artist. He tagged because it was a way for him “to escape the pressures of the ghetto.”

Beyond gang warfare, the revolutionary atmosphere of the era allowed for writers to express themselves through graffiti, achieving the attention and notoriety they desired.

“Their territory was to get out of the bad neighborhoods where they lived … to advertise themselves, to show they had something,” Cybriwsky said. The social impact generated by graffiti was like no other art form.

“It’s vandalism with a message,” Cybriwsky said. While it began as a way to warn gang members, tagging gained so much popularity that it “demolished the city of Philadelphia,” Cornbread said at a April 25 screening of a documentary about his life, “Cry of the City Part 1: The Legend of Cornbread.” Before the Anti-Graffiti Network or the Mural Arts Foundation, Philadelphia was known for its graffiti-vulnerable abandoned train stations and open lots.

“Philadelphia was world famous for how dirty it was,” Cybriwsky said. “The streets, abandoned cars and graffiti everywhere. It was a shame put on Philadelphia.” Cohen is not anti-graffiti, but said he feels that a line should be drawn between graffitis many forms.

Compared to the 1970s, graffiti is less prevalent, but it’s certainly more recognized. Modern day graffiti is enhanced in both style and meaning.

“People aren’t so much trying to put their name on the wall,” Cohen said. Rather, graffitists are trying to make a statement. Graffiti is stylistic, colorful and artistic.

It tells a story, and it sparks curiosity. “You can look at it but not even know what it says, but it looks cool. It has calmed down dramatically from the 70s, but it’s gotten better,” Cohen said. Less graffiti on the streets doesn’t mean that it isn’t still strong; and while it’s surprising
to some, it’s good for the community.

The Mural Arts Program, which stemmed from the Anti-Graffiti Network, collaborates with graffitists in hopes to turn their artistic energy into something beautiful. However, there are some graffiti artists who will never join forces with the acceptable art form. They are the hardcore graffiti artists. They aren’t interested in creating murals but rather keeping the real graffiti culture alive.

“Some are real hardcore graffitists, [while] some are graffiti artists who want to share what they do, do art shows, galleries and murals on the walls. The hardcore ones really just go out to crush it, but they are needed because they keep the culture alive and they stay true,” Cohen said. In the era of the territorial clash, graffiti carried a message of hate and fear. Today, graffitists are finding more influential ways of spreading their name. Using stickers or wheat pasting (pasting stickers with homemade glue) to tag are gaining ground in the city. Take a walk down South Street and you’ll see at least 100 stickers on street signs and newspaper carriers.

Graffiti artists are painting their favorite colors around town, and thanks to Cornbread, it’s in the city that started it all.

Melanie Menkevich can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.