A look at the culture of graffiti in Philadelphia | The Triangle
Arts & Entertainment

A look at the culture of graffiti in Philadelphia

Ever since prehistoric times, graffiti has stimulated our visual senses and given us an idea of political and social opinions during the periods in which it was created.

It’s 1:30 a.m. and I’m at a bar on South Street, in the bathroom searching for the perfect place to tag, when above the toilet I find my golden zone has already been taken. The hand is perfectly written in a diagonal drop pattern about a foot or two from the ceiling. Disappointed that I’ve been beaten to the punch, I exit the restroom and return to my barstool where Parker has been waiting.

“I see you’ve already taken care of the bathroom,” I say. “You know, I thought maybe the back of the toilet seat was a good place, but I don’t think anybody will ever drop it to see the name.”

“I saw it,” says Parker. “I had to stand on it so I could reach up near the ceiling.”

Parker is a graffiti writer. We were out having some drinks and having a conversation about some of the recent things going on in the world of graffiti.

Artists like Parker are always utilizing whatever edge they may have on reaching the perfect place to leave their mark. Although this act of “vandalism” may seem random in its disrespect for private property, it is carefully organized and strategically carried out. These people have decided beforehand what they are going to write (name, slogan, image), how it is going to look (color, font style, etc.), and where they are going to write it (above the toilet — public bathrooms get a lot of traffic).

Graffiti is something rarely admired. In fact, most people commonly despise it. Some manage to find interest in certain examples, but sadly, there are many that go without noticing its presence at all. Individuals might spend an hour driving behind a bus with giant bold letters painted on its back window spelling out “DUDE,” and they wouldn’t even see it. Graffiti exists everywhere we look. Its existence is so engrained into our brains that now even the clever slogans and intricate artwork graffiti artists spend time developing go completely unnoticed.

Recently, “street art,” as many have started calling it, has grabbed national attention through the incredible work of a man who refers to himself as Banksy. Who is this “Banksy” you may ask? Well he’s only the most renowned street artist in the world. His artwork has dealt with a wide range of political and social themes, from anti-capitalism to existentialism. There have been speculations on the identity of Banksy, but to this day he remains a name without a face.

In 2009, he put together a little documentary titled “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” which was nominated for an Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards. It followed the life of French immigrant Thierry Guetta, who just so happened to stumble upon the underground world of street art while filming his visit to France.

Street art has now become recognized as a socially acceptable form of artwork in many cities across the world, although it is still very much illegal. In Philadelphia, many “graffitists” participate in a wide range of the urban artwork, from writing to large, multi-colored pieces.

Parker corrected me when I started talking about his art. He said, “I wouldn’t exactly call myself an ‘artist.’ It’s just sort of something I do. I’m a writer and I work with anything from marker tags, scratch tags, stickers, fill-ins, rollers, burners, three colors and a little bit of piecing. Marker tags and hand styles are my favorite.”

So wait … What in the hell are “hand styles?”

Earlier that day, Parker and I sat down and spoke for a while about graffiti before heading over to a warehouse in Roxborough where he practices his larger work. He explained the graffiti lingo and gave some background on how he first got started in writing.

“They are quick, repetitive nametags that flow when you write them. Usually they are hard to read. In Philly, everything’s about hands. If you don’t have a lot of hand styles, you aren’t really anyone important. In other cities, things are more focused on legibility, but it’s different in Philly. Most writers will have legible hands for people to read and then complicated hands for writers to interpret. These are typically known as ‘wickets,’ and are really tall, symmetrical style tags.

“Other cities try to knock it, but it’s standard here in Philly,” Parker continued. “You’ve got to be careful, though, because cops know how to read wickets as well as writers. It’s their job to track the writers and put an end to their expressionism.”

This local talent has been writing up walls since he was a kid riding the train into the city, looking for good places to skate.

“Growing up in the suburbs I was always into art, but it was never enough because I was a perfectionist. I just wanted to draw the same thing over and over again until I got it right. I met a kid in school that would write all the time and I got into it. The reason I liked it so much was because it was a repetitive design that I could keep working on until I made it perfect.”

While at the warehouse, Parker had a ladder, a roller, a few buckets of paint and a couple cans with him as well. I spent the afternoon watching him construct a large piece that spread across 20 feet of wall. He told me a friend of his had found this spot and they’ve been bringing their ideas to life there for the past few years.

“We’d take the train into the city to skate and there’s so much of it on the R5 lines. Moose and Vatoe you’d see everywhere. Skate spots were huge. They were a good place to write. Philly has had so much influence on the whole world of graffiti.”

Philly is a hot spot for graffiti thanks to the infamy of a man who calls himself “Cornbread.” He was famous for writing “Cornbread Lives” on the elephants at the Philadelphia Zoo.

“It pretty much started in Philly. Nowhere else in the world is so focused on style,” Parker explained. “Philly walls are the most organized walls, out of anywhere else in the world because there are specific hand styles that people recognize and use. So when you see them on a wall together, they look like they belong together. There’s conformity between the styles. People put their own twists on it, but it’s very uniformed. Making every letter to look like the next letter, but maintaining their forms.”

After finishing his wall piece, Parker and I walked around the warehouse and had a look at the rest of the artwork on display. There were so many different names spread about the entire place. It must have been decades since this place was used for anything besides a giant canvas.

I asked him how he feels about other people getting into writing, and he responded, “I don’t really want other people to get into it. It’s not something you can just decide you want to do it … I mean, you can, but … I don’t know. It’s always in the worst places so it’s always going to involve people that are sketchy. If you just think of it as art and just want to take pictures and stuff, you probably won’t fit in with the crowd. It is still illegal, regardless of how into it you are. It doesn’t have longevity. It’s not painted on a canvas to hang in your house, and if you paint what you call graffiti and put it in your house, you do not understand the whole culture of it. It’s not just the product … it’s the culture.”

Note: Names have been changed.