[Photos by JONATHAN VALANIA]
BY JEFF DEENEY It’s been a while since I took a look at what’s going on with the many graffiti walls around town, so here’s a quick update. The most recent addition to the graffiti wall scene in North Philly is on the lower edge of the Badlands at 4th and Susquehanna; the center piece of this small collection of modest mural pieces is a portrait of Mumia Abu-Jamal just psychedelic enough to be confused for George Clinton from a distance. As recent as last summer these walls were bare so it’s nice to see some more real estate being volunteered for mural space.Around the corner from 4th and Susquehanna is the grand daddy of Philly graffiti walls, a fortress-like, three-sided stretch of concrete surrounding an industrial shipping pallet building company that has been dedicated for more than 20 years to giving local graffiti kids a place to legally display their skills. Back in 2007 I wrote a story about the wall’s impending doom in the Philadelphia Weekly. The wall was slated to be torn down to make way for what would have been Philly’s first sustainable green housing complex but a few months later the deal soured, temporary stalling development, and then the housing market collapsed, putting the project permanently to rest. At least the graffiti wall still stands, and as you can see it’s still thriving as an eye popping piece of local street culture.Driving up 5th Street from Cecil B. Moore to Allegheny on a warm late spring Saturday found some little Latin kids with spray cans cutting their teeth on the walls of a bodega at 5th and Susquehanna; shop owners in the Badlands frequently let neighborhood kids do their shop walls up with graffiti with the agreement that the artist include the shop’s name or a visual reference to the type of business they do alongside their tag. At Lee and Allegheny there’s two walls facing each other with sizable murals with contrasting visual themes. One wall looks almost like a death metal album cover featuring scythe wielding reapers and ghostly black apparitions while the other features two anime-style woman warriors with Samurai swords done in a more feminine color scheme with delicate floral highlights at the mural’s lower border.
Across town in West Philly we find the 49th and Westminster wall with its first repaint in a long time; it was redone some time last fall but that’s the first I’ve seen the work on this wall turn over in a couple years, as opposed to the high volume 5th and Cecil B. Moore wall which turns over almost weekly during the summer months. The Westminster wall has a reputation around town as consistently having the highest quality work, and the murals here tend to remain intact for long stretches of time, free of the disrespectful tags that eventually wind up consuming murals at the other sites. But the deep respect in the graffiti scene for the artists who work on the Westminster wall wasn’t shared by neighborhood kids who were quick to gripe that, “You don’t never see nothing about 49th and Westminster on that wall.”
When I asked who paints the wall neighborhood kids snarled that dudes from “New York, Connecticut, all over the place” come in from out of town to paint here. They felt the work on the wall doesn’t even reference let alone accurately reflect life in their neighborhood. I checked the website of the YMI Crew, whose work appears on the wall, and while the crew’s work is indisputably amazing it does look like the collective is comprised of mostly white and Latin kids who work internationally and honestly probably don’t know much about life at 49th and Westminster. That’s a problem because the corners surrounding 49th and Westminster are arguably the hardest territory in West Philly and almost exclusively black. This neighborhood is a perpetual motion machine of drug-related violence and the kids here are very hostile to outsiders who presumably don’t know what life is like in the Wild West. Witness the Valley of the Shadow installment from 2008 that took a hard look at a homicide on nearby Hoopes Street; it unleashed a torrent of hate mail from locals that escalated to threats of physical violence, all spurred by galled anger that an outsider would dare to comment on such a sensitive neighborhood event.
Within the graffiti community itself there’s little concern over issues of race and class; the kids I talked to for the Philly Weekly piece all assured me that it didn’t matter whether a writer grew up in Kensington or went to private school in Bryn Mawr, as long as they paid their dues in the scene they would get respect. But in West Philly respect is a hyperlocal phenomena; corner hustler kids are fiercely loyal to their block, and only their block. While the Westminster wall is tops among the oustiders in the graffiti scene, the work seemingly gets a lot less respect from the kids living in the roughed up row houses directly across the street from it.