Site hosted by Build your free website today!


Yvonne Latty, Daily News Staff Writer
April 22 2000
In Philadelphia, graffiti as we know it began with a skinny kid who called himself "Cornbread."
At his peak in the 1970s, his simple black tag was spray-painted everywhere. On a 747 jet. On a skyscraper. On an elephant in the zoo. He spent entire nights in SEPTA depots, writing his name inside and outside the trains and buses. "He's the original king of the walls," said Stephen Powers, the author of "The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium."
Hollywood hotshots wanted to make a movie about his life. Graffiti would make him a star.
It never happened.
Instead, Darryl "Cornbread" McCray, now 46, became a drug addict. Recently, he spent two months in jail on an attempted-rape charge that was later dropped. He was released on March 2.
During an interview while he was still in custody, McCray strutted into the small interview room at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility oozing charisma. His large dark eyes were afire. There was a huge smile on his face.
"Can you tell the guys in my cellblock, C-21, that it's really me - that I'm Cornbread," he said with a laugh.
Then he launched into his life story.
McCray said he got the nickname at reform school because he always talked about the cake-like cornbread his grandmother used to make. At age 10, he was sent there for two years after setting his school on fire.
"The gym teacher hit me in class and I peed on myself," McCray said. "I got so mad I set the gym on fire. I was the black sheep of my family. I was always getting into trouble."
When he was released at 12, the North Philly youth met his first love and decided to use graffiti to woo her.
"I saw this girl, she was so pretty," he recalled. "I wanted to talk to her, but I didn't know how. The only way I could think of getting her attention was to write 'Cornbread loves Cynthia' everywhere. She was like, who is this guy? And then one day she saw it on my notebook and we started going out."
The romance was short-lived, because Cynthia's parents didn't like him.
"But by then everyone was talking about me," he said, his face lighting up. "My name was all over North Philadelphia. I began to write it everywhere. . . .When I was growing up in North Philadelphia it was full of gangs, and the only way you could get a rep was to kill somebody. I didn't want to do that. But writing my name everywhere gave me a rep, and that's what it was all about for me."
Graffiti became his life. He'd spend all night spray-painting in SEPTA depots and tunnels. He had his tag monogrammed on his clothes. And he started putting a crown on the tag to show he was "king of the city."
When others began spray-painting city walls, trains and buses, McCray got more daring.
One night, he took the construction elevator to the 49th floor of a building being erected at 15th and Market streets and wrote his name on the steel.
When a rumor started that he had died, McCray climbed over a fence at the Philadelphia Zoo and wrote "Cornbread Lives" on both sides of an elephant's rough hide. He got nine months of reform school for that.
When the Jackson 5 came to town, he joined throngs of fans to see them off at the airport, then snuck out to the plane and spray-painted the side of their 747.
"I didn't get arrested," he recalled. "Instead, they wanted to do a movie on my life."
But "Cornbread, Earl and Me" didn't turn out the way McCray planned.
"With all the stuff going on, contracts and everything, this neighborhood activist said I should get a lawyer," he said. "The lawyer told me not to sign anything until he saw the contracts. The movie folks said, our lawyer is your lawyer. We made plans to meet again and they never showed up. I never heard from them again. Five years later [in 1975], the movie came out. It had the same name, but it was set in Chicago and was about basketball."
That was the beginning of tough times for McCray.
"I went to California," he said. "I tried to sue them. But there was nothing I could do. Hollywood people said maybe I could be an actor, but I should go to New York and study. I went there for five years and studied and all I got was nothing."
Moving back to Philadelphia, he got a job with the city's Anti-Graffiti Network. They were recruiting prominent former vandals as field representatives in a campaign to fight graffiti.
But McCray and then-executive director Tim Spencer butted heads, and he was fired. At that point, he was already dabbling with drugs.
"When I lost the job, I got heavy into drugs, heroin and cocaine. I was really messed up for a long time. During that time, I was in and out of jail so much the cats never missed me."
Credit-card scams, theft, counterfeit money, writing bad checks - McCray did them all during his stint as small-time crook. He even went on a cross-country crime spree and wound up arrested in Arkansas. The longest he spent in jail was eight months, he said.
In 1990 he got clean and became a free-lance photographer. He said he travels to events like block parties and takes Polaroids for 10 bucks a photo.
He also made lots of babies - 10 with five different women. His children range in age from 20 months to 26 years, and he's the grandfather of five. He lives in a dark basement apartment on Walnut Street near 49th with his girlfriend and two of his kids.
McCray, who has not done graffiti in 25 years, is full of regrets. Having lost the chance to cash in on his fleeting fame in the '70s, he hopes to find a writer who will pay to write Cornbread's life story.
"I want to get paid," he said. "Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter was compensated. That's all I want. It makes me feel good when I see someone use graffiti as a vehicle to get out of poverty, but I've gotten nowhere. I love my children, but all I've gotten out of life was a bunch of nothing."

Dick Pothier, Inquirer Staff Writer
January 21 1987
Nearly all the once-notorious names in Philadelphia graffiti were on hand yesterday to nibble munchies and chat with the establishment - some of whose business walls the wall-writers had "decorated" with their names before going straight: "Knife," "Sub," "Pez," "Beta" and "Kool No. 1."
"Cornbread," the biggest name of all and probably the father of big-name Philadelphia wall-writing back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, didn't put in an appearance. But the word among former street graffiti celebs was that he, too, had gone "straight" and was recently reported to be negotiating to have his name adorn a new brand of cornmeal.
It was the annual reception for city and business officials sponsored by the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, formed by Mayor Goode in 1984. The one-time wall-writers showed up because many of them now work for the network instead of working on walls.
"The anti-graffiti network has enlisted so many of the top wall-writers in the city - even Cornbread - that it's now at the point where it's cool to be working or painting for the anti-graffiti network," said John Heard, 26, of Frankford, the former and notorious "Kool No. 1."
Heard, now a field representative for the anti-graffiti network, said the network "has gotten to the point where we'd enlisted all the top writers on our side, and their followers joined up along with them."
Instead of spraying their names on walls, Heard said, the city anti- graffiti program has resulted in former graffiti artists painting more than 250 murals all over town in the last year by teams.
"These writers saw the chance and said, 'Hey, here's a chance to work on a open wall without getting busted and getting locked up."
Yesterday's event, held at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Center City, was a chance for the former graffiti writers to display their own works of art. Altogether, network officials said, more than 100 former wall-writers are now pursuing artistic careers, some for the network, others on their own.
"A lot of these talented people had huge 'reps' in the graffiti world," said Jane Golden, 30, head of the network's public mural program.
"We've obviously made a big dent in graffiti in Philadelphia. There are no more 'big names' operating. There are no more active wall-writing clubs . . . just local vandalism."
More than 4,000 young people from all over the city have joined the network and helped rid exactly 7,182 buildings of graffiti in 1986, said Peter Aborn, chairman of the anti-graffiti network's board and president of the West Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
The police have also played a role in the reduction of graffiti in the city, network officials said. In the network's annual report, made public yesterday, it reported that Philadelphia police made more than 300 graffiti arrests in 1986 and that SEPTA police made more than 250.
During the last three years, judges have sentenced offenders to a total of nearly 5,000 hours in "scrub time" - mandatory work cleaning up graffiti. In 1985, Philadelphia police made 833 arrests. Network officials cited the decline in arrests as evidence that the problem of graffiti has been sharply reduced.
The network has had its problems in the last year - paychecks for hundreds of young people working in the program were briefly held up by the city controller, who wanted documentation showing that the work had actually been done. And two program aides are facing trial after being arrested on charges of stealing about $1,000 in payroll checks.
Besides displaying works of art by the former wall-writers, the reception included blown-up photographs of vacant lots landscaped by the network and other pictures of murals painted on walls of businesses, and even on tunnels and bridges.

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE, Daily News Staff Writer
June 24 1983

The former Cool Bill or C.B. or Country Bill is plain old Billy East now, retired for many years, but still an admirer of his own work.
"There's a B-E-E right there," he says, pointing to the side wall of a tavern near 50th Street and Chester Avenue. "That's my initials, B-E-E - I went by them, too. Man, those must be up there 10 years, 'cause I haven't done any writing in a long, long time." East is 27, but looks younger with his jeans and white T-shirt and high-top basketball sneakers. By graffiti-writing standards, though, he's old.
Climbing on buildings and atop railroad bridges, making early-morning hits at schoolyards - that's a young man's game.
East gave it up in high school, not that he's been that much missed. Contemporaries like Cool Earl, Cornbread and the immortal Chewy were far more famous: Country Bill was just an occasional writer, by comparison a mere dabbler.
And besides, there is a new generation to carry on.
That generation, younger teens mostly, has taken up the tradition with such zeal that there are blocks in certain neighborhoods without one unmarked building.
The squiggly, indecipherable scrawl known on the street as "Philly style" coats schools, government buildings, churches, mail boxes, private homes - even trucks that stay parked too long.
"In the last year there has been a big resurgence of graffiti," says Gordon Cooper, a community organizer in the city managing director's office.
Says Temple University professor Harry A. Bailey Jr., who's made a personal crusade of ridding the city of wall-writing: "Philadelphia is the graffiti capital of the world."
The city wants very much to eliminate it. To scrub off and paint over the writing that's been on the walls for 10 and 15 years, and to talk to and stop the kids who have created the graffiti renaissance.
The trend is to catch and punish wall-writers, and there is little sentiment now, as there once was, that graffiti is the work of youngsters groping for a way to express themselves.
The Graffiti Alternatives Workshop, an early '70s solution that tried to put graffiti on canvas, has shut down, a relic of some bygone theory on crime and punishment.
A program coordinated by Cooper this summer will attempt to take 25 wall- writers off the streets and have them create murals instead. But City Councilman John Street has expressed what seems to be the prevailing sentiment.
"The only programs I'm interested in with graffiti is how to get it off . . . I'd rather start breaking arms than refer to them as graffiti artists," he said at a Council session last week.
Council currently has before it a bill that would ban the sale of spray paint to minors and force stores to keep the paint and indelible markers in a ''controlled, inaccessible area."
Task forces to combat graffiti have been formed in West and Northwest Philadelphia, and the School District, spurred on by Bailey, has also put together a task force.
But if writing on walls is no longer chic, not everyone has gotten the word. In many parts of the city, graffiti lives on as positively a rite of youth. It is inbred and organized, with a language and a code of its own.
In many schools, students sign one another's composition books in the same style they spray-paint a wall, or they'll wear their signature on the back of a shirt. A scrawl that is unintelligible to an outsider is easily identified by a wall-writer's peer.
Certain signatures are known and copied, and their authors are revered just as a high school basketball star might be.
Cooper estimates that 3,000 or more teen-agers write on walls, and "300 are known by their peers. They've built reputations by having a big number of hits, or one or two that are bold and colorful." "Come on," Billy East says, "I'll take you to talk to some guys who are still doing it."
East, who is unemployed, married, and the father of two, picks up money doing odd jobs and driving a gypsy cab. A reporter approached him as he talked with friends near a hot dog cart at 48th and Spruce, and asked simply if he knew any graffiti writers.
A self-described "nice guy," he pointed the way to a playground at 58th Street and Kingsessing Avenue, in Southwest Philadelphia, a hotbed of graffiti writers and an area where it is literally almost impossible to find a virgin wall - one unmarked by graffiti.
East points out a grocery store wall that is being painted over. ''Guaranteed," he says, "that'll be hit before the night's out."
Feelings of boredom, or depression, drove him to write on walls years ago, East says. Now, he watches in amazement as others do it.
"You wouldn't believe it - crowds of kids walking around with their spray cans, marking up walls. Then they be laughin' and slappin' hands." "One day," says a young wall writer who goes by the name of Easy Money, ''I'm going to have a boy. And I'm going to show him. I'll say, 'Boy, this was your daddy way back when.' "
Easy Money breaks into a broad grin, and his friends, who sit beside him on a curb beside the basketball courts at 58th and Kingsessing, nod in approval.
he's an active wall writer. One who goes by the moniker SAKE produces a broad-tipped indelible marker from his right-hand pocket, and a SEPTA Transpass from the other pocket.
"You can go anywere with this," he says, holding up the Transpass as if he's making a commercial for SEPTA. "You don't have to stay in the area."
The last wall he marked was about a week ago, he says, at 9th Street and Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Why do they do it?
An 18-year-old in gray sweats and a Nike hat answers first. His signature is SNAKE, not to be confused with SAKE.
"It's not just to be damaging up government property," he explains. ''It's to get a name for yourself. People recognize you."
The four teenagers conduct an informal survey among themselves, and come up with a list of what they believe are the three top names in Philadelphia graffiti.
The stars mostly write in what's called the New Yorker style, bold block letters done in bright colors.
RAZZ has to be one, they agree. But he's retired, and has become a ''hustler" in Center City.
TAN is still signing walls, but rarely, they believe.
And KR, or Kool Ruff, he's out of it altogether. He's locked up at Holmesburg Prison, they say.
Snake leans against the cyclone fence as he thinks about the competition and the potential consequences of his hobby.
Sometimes he thinks he'll give up wall-writing, he says, because it's certainly a petty thing to go to jail for. But probably he'll keep doing it.
"I'd like to be the top writer in Philadelphia," he confesses.
"I think it would be really impossible now for anyone to spend any time at all looking or driving around the city not to have seen one of these spectacularly beautiful murals and not be convinced of the progress we've made in cleaning up graffiti all around Philadelphia," Aborn said.