Two decades ago the Mural Arts Program's celebrated director tried to save a talented painted from the streets. Now they're working together in prison.
"I just thought, 'Boy, I bet these guys would really like doing murals because they're big, they're outdoors. They're natural wall hunters and they're clearly not scared of heights."
For several years she and Tran schlepped around in her dented Ford (once an undercover police car), trying to engage wall writers, and admiring their better work along the way. Spel's name came up frequently.
"He'd show me Spel's pieces," Golden recalls. "The big colorful ones with scenic backgrounds--burners or New Yorkers, they called them--and I'd be like, 'God, this guy's so talented. Let's recruit him.' You see some graffiti, and even if it's pretty good, you feel like you've seen a million like them. His stood out."
As Golden navigated the city's graffiti subculture, she heard Hardcore and Toy dropping fellow writer Spel's name.
Jonathan Heard, a Graffiti Network employee for more than 20 years and a fabled '70s wall writer in his own right (his "Johnski" tag was almost as recognizable as "Cornbread"), says Spel had serious cred.
"He had more of a New York style. He did big things with a lot of colors," Heard says. "Cornbread and myself, we were basic black and silver, hit and split. He had a real nice hand."
Another Mural Arts employee and ex-writer who gives his name only as "Smack" recalls a burner Spel did on a wall at South Philly's Bok Vocational High School depicting a flamboyant character strutting along while wearing headphones, his face contorted in agony.
"He just threw it up," Smack says. "Everything he did was nice."
Golden finally crossed paths with Spel one night as he talked shop with taggers Delta, Faid, Teaz and Met on the steps of an El station, a favorite huddling spot.
Spel, slight but self-assured, said he wanted nothing to do with the anti-graffiti movement.
"Some viewed me as law enforcement, and he was like that," Golden says. "He wasn't hostile, but he wasn't that friendly either. He was like, 'She's a cop. She's from Anti.'" She laughs. "I found him arrogant, actually, but I found a lot of them arrogant. Being with Anti-Graffiti was like having a stamp on my forehead."
Golden kept putting out feelers, hoping to win Spel over, but the answer always came back the same: No way.
She eventually gave up, though she did so reluctantly, knowing the Network could help a kid with Spel's talent. There was, for example, Teddy "Knife" Harris, who joined at 15 to enhance his painting skills, then discovered poetry and cultivated a strong following.
"Some of them started producing their own work that was pretty sophisticated," Golden says. "I introduced them to some fairly well-known artists and critics. I still wonder what might've happened with Spel if he'd joined."
Maureen Rush remembers working for the narcotics strike force charged with closing down the open-air drug market at Seventh and Tioga that prospered in the late '80s and early '90s.
"It was one of the worst in the city," says Rush, a former police officer and lieutenant who now serves as vice president for public safety at Penn. "Quite possibly the worst."
Drivers were inundated by dealers offering blow--blue bag, red bag, yellow bag, clear bag.
Geek Invasion 2013