NO ROOFTOP, NO BLACKTOP, NO EL STOP WAS SAFE WHEN CORNBREAD AND HIS POSSE WERE WRECKIN' IT.
GRAFFITI CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
By the '70s graffiti in Philadelphia was out of control. A 1972 Camden Courier-Post article reported that it cost $1,000 a day to remove graffiti from the City Hall complex. The city appointed a 20-man graffiti squad.
In 1971 a woman wrote to the Evening Bulletin "in white heat and in rage" over the problem. "Will the Liberty Bell be next?" she implored. Not quite--they had to wait until 1976 for that, when KAP the Bicentennial Kid slammed the Bell with his tag two weeks before the Fourth of July.
Philadelphia was the undisputed graffiti capital of the world, but to most people this was no badge of honor. The tags that covered the city were stylistically complex, near impossible to read and communicated little more than urban decay to the average commuter. While some championed it as "folk art," or a kind of thwarted creativity, the vast majority of people, when they looked at graffiti, felt angry and discouraged.
"The city was tore up so bad that shit even got on my nerves," Sub says.
Even Cornbread, who'd left the city in 1974 for seven years to follow an acting career that never took off, couldn't believe his eyes when he came home again.
"When I got back the whole town looked like a war zone. It was a nuisance; it was a sight. I felt bad because I felt responsible," he says.
Wilson Goode's election pledge in 1983 was to clean the mess up, and in 1984 he initiated the Anti-Graffiti Network.
"Mayor Goode sent a letter to my house!" Sub recalls with glee.
The letter said he had 10 days from the time he received it to turn himself in. "I bombed those 10 days," he says, even getting off an especially good one: Ha ha hee hee you can't catch me. When he did report himself it was for the promise of a job.
"When the city addressed the issue of graffiti it was already dead," Stallings says. "There was no place to write your name because the city was already so marred."
Around that time graffiti moved to New York and got itself a fancy new association. No longer a gang thing, wall writing was now a hip-hop thing. Graffiti became hopelessly intertwined with the new urban party culture when Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation took a troupe of DJs, breakers, MCs and graff writers on the road. In 1983 Henry Chalfant's groundbreaking film Style Wars solidified the association in the public's mind. Hip-hop sensibilities spent the next 15 years mushrooming out to white suburbia, and while graffiti hasn't gone away, it's never been the same since.
"The scene sucks now," laments Soul, a writer and DJ at Drexel's radio station, WKDU. But while he decries the art-school kids from the suburbs who have infiltrated the culture, he would never deny the legitimate white graffiti experience: "Them cats was straight thugs."
DON'T CALL IT ART
In a suit and a silver BMW, Suroc doesn't look like he was ever once a scruffy street kid. Today he's a family man, a salesman and a musician, but when he sat in his fifth grade classroom, thumbing through a math book filled with doodles and tags a decade old, he was already deeply knowledgeable of the currency in being tough. Graffiti was like a varsity letter, something worth earning.
"Nobody really aspired to be a good boy in my neighborhood," he says, referring to the Overbrook section of the city where he grew up. "Whatever art education you can say I had was probably trying to copy Spiderman and draw on my own the comics I would get from the local drugstore," Suroc says, noting that he always had an affinity for the bad guys.
By 1983 Suroc's finely tuned--and oft-practiced--ideas earned him the title "style king." In Stephen Powers' book The Art of Getting Over, Powers recalls calling him "Hollywood" "because he was so good at being conceited." Suroc was a tough kid, but also smart kid, with big dark eyes that didn't miss a beat and a black book full of high-concept ideas about graff and the things it could say to people.
His battered book shows the synthesis of many masterpieces, yet an admonishment blazes off one page as if in anticipation of a snooping journalist some 10 years ahead of time: "It's graffiti; don't call it art!"
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4