Wicked Letters

How Philadelphia's Cornbread became graffiti's first hero

This issue of Letters is part of a series on graffiti. The introduction is here 

Back in the 1960s, Philadelphia spawned a new, distinct graffiti culture. Unlike the contemporaneous graffiti culture in Los Angeles, the Philly culture had no basis in gangs or traditions. This was individualist youth culture. And it kicked off with one kid and a corny moniker.

Philadelphia in the 1960s

Cornbread gets up

1965, teen-aged Darryl McCray was imprisoned in one of Pennsylvania’s Youth Development Centers. The center’s kitchen served white bread. Darryl had a taste for cornbread and he wasn't shy about asking for it. It didn't matter—the kitchen only served white bread. That didn't matter—Darryl asked again. And again. He asked every day, annoying the cooks to the point that one of them threw him physically out of the kitchen.

But on the way out, he gave Darryl a lifetime’s supply of cornbread by way of a nickname, a moniker, a tag: Cornbread.

Darryl liked being called Cornbread. He wrote it on the back of his shirt, like a jersey. And he kept on writing “Cornbread”, everywhere.

Back in North Philly in 1967, free, he wrote Cornbread all over walls and buses. He even wooed a girlfriend with graffiti love notes all over the city, signed with his moniker. She fell for him when she figured out who Darryl really was—the famous Cornbread, the outlaw king of North Philly!

Cornbread’s rep could only grow.


Cornbread is dead

Philadelphia in the 1960s had some of the same problems as Los Angeles. Formal institutions had failed local communities; informal institutions came up in their place. The violent processes that create law where there is none came with them.

In March, 1971, two Philly newspapers—The Inquirer and The Tribune—reported the news: Philadelphia’s most prolific writer, “Corn”, had been cut down in a hail of bullets—just another gang-land tragedy.

Cornbread, meanwhile, was never named Corn and had never been murdered. His response to the news of his death was explosive. Cornbread started bombing the city with Cornbread tags. His campaign even reached the city zoo, where he tagged benches, concession stands, even an elephant, with one defiant shout: Cornbread Lives.

An individual tag in a city is a shout in the wind. But scream in enough faces, some people will have to notice. Some of them will even care. Cornbread Lives was an undeniable existential shout. The papers reporting that Cornbread was dead had instead created a living legend.

The paper reports had been a case of mistaken identity by racist and lazy journalists. They had no idea who Darryl McCray was. They assumed Cornbread was young and black. He did something illegal, so he might as well be in a gang. Throw in “Corn” (short for Cornelius, in this case) and they had an airtight case. Only the truth could puncture it.

The truth was, not only had the papers mistaken Cornbread's identity and livingness, they'd made a wildly wrong assumption about his associations.


Philly social clubs and graffiti

Not every ersatz institution that comes up in the place of failed institutions is a gang. In Philadelphia, social clubs emerged to unite youth outside the auspices of both gangs and formal institutions. These neighbourhood organizations modeled themselves after frats, sometimes even using Greek names. In 1969, Cornbread made friends with the members of Delta Phi Soul, introducing them to graffiti writing. The social club became the first de-facto graffiti crew.

Other graffiti crews followed, dedicated to the craft, not bound by neighbourhood limitations. These crews accepted members from all over the city, based on writing skill and the ability to get up.

The scene exploded. With so many writers in play, style evolved to stand out.

Philadelphia graffiti originated with spray painted letters in a printed style. An early style advance came from Topcat 126. He called it Gangster Hand, using bendy, elongated letters, set on a platform—something like baseline serifs.

Other writers took this style further, standing out by standing tall. The result was a style called Tall Hand, characterized by elongated letters literally as tall as the writer could make them—the only limit was the size of the surface or reach of the writer.

The physical demands of writing tall pushed the evolution of Philadelphia’s graffiti style further. Writing tall orients the motion of graffiti writing vertically. Tall letters pull the writer's entire body up and down, straining against the spray can and the cone of paint coming from the tip. Like a calligrapher writes words without taking the pen’s tip from the page, the Philly writer can cover a wall in a single line punctuated only by changes in direction, from up to down, and back up. This characteristic whip of motion in these tags is essential to the style—the Wicked.


Philadelphia style graffitithe wicked

To outsiders, Wickeds are deliberately obscure. They look sketchy, loopy, frenetic, dense, driven by nerves and the need to get up and get out. Letters are lost in the motion behind the making—only the idea of letters remain, abstracted from letter forms by the physical demands of their creation.

As tags, Wickeds’s opacity make them hard to understand. Nobody gets as famous as Cornbread off writing Wickeds.

But Wickeds aren’t for mass consumption. These are capital within the culture—artists’s artistry, true style. And for those who know what they’re looking at, they impart a lot of informatiom. An experienced writer can read the motions of a Wicked’s writing in the writing. Every whip up and down, every flare shows where the writer was and how they held their can as they wrote. The letters of the tag may be indecipherable, but the ghost of the writer remains, an instructional for the present—someone was here, and they did something only they could do.

An example of a Wicked in North Philladelphia

Cornbread and self-written legends

Back in 1971, only a couple months after his non-death, Cornbread did something only Cornbread could do.

He joined hundreds of fans on the tarmac of Philadelphia’s airport, watching the Jackson 5 deplane. When they’d made if off the stairs, Cornbread went up.

And tagged their 747.

At least that’s how the story goes.

That’s how the whole story of graffiti goes—we work from apocryphal tales and oral histories, the self-said legends of folk heroes in hiding. But we do know that where there was a wall, there was a word.


Next issue, the story continues in New York with the birth of a broader culture.

Download graffiti-inspired fonts from BLKBK here.