“To….protect my area, my turf. Right here, where I live…”
In a scene from Jungle, the unheralded 1969 documentary film on street gangs in North Philadelphia, a young man is asked why he gang wars (note: the phrase “gang war” was essentially used as a compound verb in Philly and some oldheads still use it as such), and this sentiment is repeated by his comrades all members of the Oxford Street gang. The young men shyly recount their experiences in the gang while stray tags pepper the bright, white wall behind them. Throughout the 60s and 70s, thousands of Philadelphia youth were thought to be involved in gangs. Marred by fights and stabbings, the city’s gang culture was simultaneously vicious and creatively rich, as evidenced by scenes in Jungle were members of the 12th & Oxford gang can be seen strolling on the block performing a call and response rhyme routine that prefigures rap and hip-hop as we would later know it. In 1971, a young man named Cornelius Hosey was killed in a gang-related altercation and the local news wrongfully identified the victim as North Philly graffiti writer Cornbread. Catalyzed by this mix up, the real Cornbread (born Darryl McCray) went on an ambitious tear throughout the city, throwing his tag up on every clean surface he could find, determined to reclaim space and prove that he was in fact, very much alive.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Cornbread’s mission to assert his name and aesthetic onto the space around him would birth graffiti as an art form and lay the foundations for a cultural revolution and a multi-Billion(?) dollar industry. While the Bronx is rightfully credited as the locus of hip-hop’s initial blossoming as a global culture, this essential element of the culture was born here in Philadelphia’s Black neighborhoods.
Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence, a recent film directed by Roger Gastman, takes a look at graffiti’s origins, utilizing interviews with pioneering artists, rare photos and previously unseen archival footage to capture the artform’s embryonic period during the late 60s and early 70s. The film will be screened this Friday, August 17th at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, followed by a panel featuring Cornbread and multidisciplinary artist Robert Lugo, moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Cassie Owens “Philadelphia doesn’t always get credit for its crucial place in graffiti history,” says Owens. “We expect some graffiti legends to be in the space, so it’ll be a good night to set the record straight.”
Doors open at 6 p.m. at the Wall Writers screening the film begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. This screening is presented in conjunction with AAMP’s exhibition, Collective Conscious: The Art of Social Change, on view through August 26, 2018. More information can be found at the AAMP website.
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