NO ROOFTOP, NO BLACKTOP, NO EL STOP WAS SAFE WHEN CORNBREAD AND HIS POSSE WERE WRECKIN' IT.
"All the kings are in the house!" Don Ameche Stallings says, beaming at his friends, men who were once some of the most notorious graffiti writers in the country.
For a time Stallings was a kind of mayor of graffiti, organizing the crews and their ragtag writers into a full-fledged movement. Some 25 years ago he proclaimed to the world by way of a can of spray paint: Master Prink 123 It's Me!
The kings have converged on the 2700 block of North Fifth Street, a corner that's seen its share of hustles and gang huddles and kids trying to get an easy beat, for a kind of family reunion.
Local filmmaker Brian MacDonald has lured Stallings to Taller Puertoriqqueno, the North Philly cultural center, on this bright, crisp Saturday morning to help showcase a graffiti encyclopedia project Stallings, now 39, is working on. Today the "five elements of hip-hop" will be showcased (that's MCing, DJing, break-dancing, the human beat-box and graffiti) as part of the hip-hop documentary MacDonald and Kim Waters are putting together.
Inside Taller Puertoriqqueno a crowd is gathering for the show. Two skinny, breakable-looking white boys in full b-boy regalia are milling around, admiring Stallings' work under their breath. "That's bad, that's bad," one murmurs approvingly.
"That's the kid that emails me every day," Stallings says, amazed at what graffiti hath wrought.
The day wears on; the crew is working hard; and many MCs and DJs are getting their turn at bat. It's loud in here and the hall is bursting with the crazy energy that comes from trying to get noticed. Toward the front of the room is Cornbread, a man who long ago learned how to get noticed without making a peep. Cornbread sits in front of two booming speakers, stretches out his legs and falls asleep.
| HOMEGROWN STYLE: |
Graffiti wasn't documented on a large scale until the 1980s. Even then, writers who wanted to gain fame for "bombing" the city didn't have time to photograph their work--they had to "hit it and quit it" if they wanted to move on and cover more territory. Still, lots of wall writers have saved snapshots of their favorite work to preserve it before it got buffed.
By the '80s, many graffitists who wrote primarily prints or tags--signatures that were either easy or difficult to read, respectively--began to create larger and more colorful murals called pieces. Suroc, a writer considered a king of style in Philadelphia in the early '80s, says that walking bus routes and otherwise putting in your time as a tagger was the only way to gain respect as a Philly writer.
All the photos on these pages are courtesy of Suroc (whose tag on p. 17, top left, was done on a Center City bridge; the spaceman detail, p. 17 bottom right, is from a piece he did on a rooftop in West Philly). He counts among his major influences Mr. Blint (p. 16, top left), Estro, (p. 17, top right, done on the Schuykill Expressway) and Credit (p. 16, second from top on the left).
AB63 (p. 16, third from top on the left and p. 17, bottom left) was a member of Suroc's piecing club, Inner City Youth. Jay C (p. 16, bottom middle) was also considered an important writer at the time. Espo (p. 16, top row, second from left) also wrote with Inner City Youth and has gone on to create beautiful pieces in both Philly and New York. Dasar ( p. 16, large middle and p. 17 bottom middle) is of the new school; his pieces have been spotted around Center City and beyond starting in the mid-'90s, and they show the evolution of graffiti style over time. (K.H.)
CORNBREAD LOVES CYNTHIA
"Graffiti started out as a love story," Stallings says, just as quotable as can be, and it's true.
"I was released from reform school in 1967," Cornbread, 48, recalls. After spending ages 10 and 11 in what he alternatingly calls "school" and "jail," he was returned to the public school system. "While I was introduced I was scanning the class looking for the prettiest girl. I spotted her but I didn't know how to talk to her because all I knew how to talk was gangbanger-jitterbug talk."
So he says he set in motion what was surely one of the more determined wooing projects of the latter 20th century. He stole a look at her roster and arrived to all her classes before she did, writing "Cornbread loves Cynthia" on her desk. He also wrote it all down the block where she lived, and all along the bus route she took to school.
He befriended her as Darryl, which is why for a while she was dumbfounded as to who this Cornbread might be. He walked her home from school but had to stop a block short. Cornbread was something of a jitterbug himself, and Cynthia's father didn't want him around. One day she saw on one of his schoolbooks the same declaration she'd seen on her desk, and it was then she knew that Cornbread was one Darryl McCray.
"That's when she fell in love with me," he says.