Keep it Real

This event has passed


Those who practice graffiti art in Philadelphia face heavy legal penalties. Neighbors and homeowners organize against what they see as destructive behavior, a symbol of urban decay. Few people are in the mood to make distinctions between “pieces” and “tags,” legal and illegal walls, vandalism and art. This exhibition was part of an attempt to create a forum where young people could have a chance to speak for themselves, and to talk about what they were doing and why. In community discussions that were part of this project, some young people offered thoughtful analyses of the politics of graffiti, asking why there was money to arrest artists but not drug dealers, or money to “buff” walls but not for public schools. Others asked how graffiti writers could disrespect their own neighborhoods. People listened to one another – even as they held different notions of what counted as art, as respect, and as responsibility. This project was intended to encourage public conversation about the place and significance of folk arts, and we hope that you keep the conversation going.

Co-curator’s statement by Sandra Andino

Graffiti murals proliferate in North Philadelphia. Since the early 70s, generations of graffiti writers have left their mark on the walls for everyone to see. “Tags” and “throw-ups” are some types of graffiti writings – signatures or initials written with spray can paint with only one or two colors. These are the markings on the walls which have stimulated most of the attention and negative criticism from the media, city authorities, and residents alike. However, very few attempts have been made to study other types of Philadelphia graffiti – murals or “pieces” – and few have tried to approach the graffiti writers who produce these public art works. But North Philadelphia neighborhoods are full of this alternative public art: graffiti memorial murals dedicated to deceased friends and family, commercial signs painted for businesses or agencies, and large multicolored murals known as “pieces.”

To many graffiti writers, these are important mediums of expression. DAN ONE, an older writer explains: “Writing, drawing – it is the first thing that we possessed and this is the last thing that we still have that they can’t take away. No matter what happens, this is something that nobody can ever take away, this sense of expression.” ESPO adds that among other things graffiti is essentially a “form of communication” created by youth to gain recognition from their peers. “It’s like advertising” says SAT. Writers gain popularity and recognition based on their ability to write their names in an infinite number of styles. But the creative process is enhanced when a writer skillfully combines colors, forms and a unique style with the name itself, creating both illusions and intricate images. To be a good writer, one needs continuous practice and self-discipline, and writers really learn about style by studying and observing more skillful writers.

ENEM, a writer from Northwest Philadelphia who has been writing since 1987, is known for his unique and original style – for long and skinny letters that weave into each other like spaghetti. SAT, also from Northwest Philadelphia, began writing around 1984 or 1985 – when writing in Philadelphia was “at its most.” SAT believes that Philly artists are the most innovative in terms of “lettering.” DAN ONE is originally from New York but has been living in Philadelphia since 1988. He notes that Philly writers, specifically those from North Philly, have developed both their own kinds of styles and their own ways of talking about these styles. The younger writers in this exhibition – KRAZ, PROPER, JESC and NOPE – were influenced by these and other older writers. They learned how to spray paint either by studying other writers’ styles or by just going out and writing with their friends. QUISP taught JESC how to write “straight letters” (a basic style of writing when piecing) and was his mentor when the two used to go out “piecing” together.

Not all writers begin by spray painting on walls. Many often use “black books” filled with sketches for pieces. Many hours can go into preparing a sketch for a piece that may never go onto a wall. When graffiti writers decide to paint a mural even more hours are invested in sketching the piece, preparing the materials and selecting the paints, priming the walls, networking with other writers (when the graffiti mural is a collaborative effort), and just painting (five to fourteen hours for a single mural).

It takes a lot of commitment to be a graffiti writer. “You got to go through a lot to be a writer. You have to put up with writers crossing you out, getting chased by cops and watching your back twenty four hours” says KRAZ. That is why more and more often graffiti writers prefer to paint on what they call “legal” walls – walls on which they have permission to paint. The advantage of writing on a “legal” wall is that a writer can “chill” (relax) and “show your talents” says SAT. Graffiti writers usually work together when they are out creating a “production” (pieces on a single wall). They usually go out in “crews” which are writer’s networks. “Crews are like a friendship” says SAT. Some crews exclusively represent certain areas, but other crews are so large that some members don’t even know each other. QM8, one of the largest crews, includes writers from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.

Many of the older graffiti writers in this show have been involved in the creation of this art form for more than ten years and intend to keep going. Among other things, these writers are pursuing careers in business, video production, publishing, music, art and art education. Younger artists dream of artistic growth in their chosen medium. ENEM sees graffiti as “something to uplift the communities, something that kids can relate to.” It is about “art for kids with no resources.” The trouble is, as DAN ONE well knows, that many people “look at the visuals” and jump to conclusions: “Because that’s what happens, people get confused. They see certain things and they think you are a certain way. People are not judging the art form, they are not judging the visuals, people are judging the actions [of getting up on the wall], that’s what’s going on.”

* Curators’ essays are excerpts from longer essays which appeared in a special “Art Happens Here” issue of Works in Progress, the magazine of the Philadelphia Folklore Project 8:3 (1995).

Co-curator’s statement by DAN ONE

The whole thing about keeping it real is about really keeping in touch with reality. For example, a lot of people tell us, “Won’t you paint something positive?” And the thing about it – this IS positive, because for us, we don’t want to fall into the stereotype. Keep it on a total balance, where it is fun, creative and people will see it and have to say something about it – either good or bad. So that it always keeps graph on that level….

It’s not like any other art. You go to a gallery and it is in a gallery and a limited number of people will see it. This, no matter what, everybody is going to see it. So we piece our piece for the people. It is there for you to view it, so you’re the judge. So it is your reaction, in turn, that I react to. So I am coming into connection with the visuals and I see what you connect with. That’s the good thing about graph. If people don’t like it, they’re going to diss it. In my art, you can actually come up and do something about it. And we live with that. And that also helps with the creative process. You didn’t like that? So I’m going to go on another level. So when they buff they give us another space, so we get pushed to be more innovative, so they feed it. But then again, they are destroying our work.

People might think this is a so-called minority thing, when we got all kinds of brothers. A whole family. So people say, “You’re a gang.” No. We’re a crew. Right now, the media is using that to doom people without taking the opportunity to try to understand what is going on. There are a lot of kids working with limited resources who want to create lots of things to help their environment but are not given the opportunity….

A lot of people think that just because you go AC (all city) you get respect. No, that comes from being friendly with people around where you are doing the mural, being flexible and having respect. Sometimes, there is a place where I wouldn’t write. Once they see that I am giving that respect to them, they give me respect. That’s the whole thing about it. Anybody can just come here and paint things. You can be the baddest graffiti artist and come here to North Philly and still not get respect. You got to give respect to get respect….

We want to set an example. We’re doing a lot of legal walls. It is not just random all the time. We’re at a new plateau. People had dreams back then and we’re still following them. What I am saying here is just one percent of graph. Because this is just Dan One here. I am trying to represent all the artists, but we need to get together and keep on doing this together, or we are going to self-destruct, or let them destroy us.

Exhibition Checklist

01. NOPE by NOPE at Cecil B. Moore Ave. and Fifth St., 1995
The actions of graffiti writers are not wrong actions but reactions to wrong. KOOLNOPE. F.earless U.nderworld. –NOPE (The phrase, “A Feared Underworld” is a reflection by youth on how they believe they are seen by others.)

02. We reminisce Chicago/the streets will always tell your story by DENSKI on Fourth St. near Diamond, 1992
I’ll do an “In memory of” mural, and I won’t even get a commission for it. You just buy me the paint and I’ll do it. Because the whole message behind it is, ‘Hey, let’s wake up, see what’s really goin’ on.’ –DAN ONE

03. KRAZ by KRAZ at Second and Erie Streets, 1994
Kids get influenced and it’s an automatic thing. They’ll pick up and do, and transmit what they’re seeing…. We’re not here to deny that…. This is my community. I could transmit anything on the walls. I transmit necessary things. –DAN ONE

04. QUISP/Butta/AFU/The Reservoir by QUISP (EXO), 1994
We call this an “underground” piece because this is done at a reservoir. We usually hang out at reservoirs or train tracks ’cause there’s nobody really there to bother you… sometimes if you’re doing something in the streets there’s always someone there telling you to do this or put my name up or there’s the cops… The underground is really to show style… because only the people on the train will see it… they’ll pass by and say, “Oh, what’s that?” –DAN ONE

05. PROPS by PROPER (PR) at 18th and Wallace Streets, 1994
No more, no less. – PROPER
We’re looking for that space…. Nobody had never taken the time to go down to the community and actually ask the kids, ‘What do you want?’ –DAN ONE
This exhibit is in memory of PROPER who was killed in a car accident in October 1995.

06. Kill the Bull by ESPO at Fifth and Huntington Streets, 1994
The message is non-existence. Spray paint gives me permanence. The style flowing is substance, the wall stands in remembrance. –ESPO
(“Kill the Bull” refers to Bull Malt liquor, often advertised on illegal billboards and targeted at urban youth. Here the artists are speaking out against such advertising and against the use of liquor in their neighborhood.)

07. SAT/Esoteric by SAT at the Manyunk train tracks, 1994
Graffiti is essentially a form of communication created by youth to gain recognition from their peers. – Sandra Andino
It’s like advertising. – SAT
Graffiti is an art form that is done publicly. It’s done for the community. It’s by the community. It’s to communicate with everybody. –DAN ONE

08. OMAC/Is this art or dangerous propaganda? by OMAC at Front and Loudon Streets, 1994
Graffiti is something to uplift the communities, something that kids can relate to. It is about art for kids with no resources. –ENEM

09. DAN by DAN ONE at Second and Erie Streets, 1994
Graffiti is a struggle to be better than everyone else, to innovate, to eliminate the competition. –JESC

10. ENEM/KTS/Techno vs. Hip Hop/Sweatin’ w. da oldies by ENEM at Second and Thompson Streets, 1994
Crews are like a friendship. –SAT
So people say, “You’re a gang.” No, we’re a crew. The media is using it to doom people without taking the opportunity to try to understand what is going on. There are a lot of kids working with limited resources who want to create lots of things to help their environment, but are not given the opportunity. –DAN ONE

11. JESC by JESC at the Manyunk train tracks, 1994
If you want to call it graffiti, call it graffiti. If you want to call it art, call it art. Call it whatever you want. We know it’s the urban expression. –DAN ONE

12. Keep it Real by JESC at 5th St. and Cecil B. Moore Blvd., 1995.


“Keep it Real” was originally produced in 1995 by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, as part of “Art Happens Here,” a series of 8 small photo exhibitions of local folk artists in diverse city neighborhoods. The Philadelphia Folklore Project is especially proud to have collaborated with the Taller Puertorriqueàöo for Keep it Real. For more information on additional Art Happens Here exhibitions, please contact the Philadelphia Folklore Project, 735 South 50th Street., Philadelphia, PA 19143. (215) 726.1106. Special thanks to DAN ONE, DENSKI, ENEM, ESPO, JESC, KRAZ, NOPE, OMAC, PR, QUISP and SAT, and to Johnny Irizarry, Tanya Regli and Catalina Rios for their help with Keep It Real. We are happy to acknowledge support for “Art Happens Here” from the National Endowment for the Art, PA Council on the Arts, PA Humanities Council, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The William Penn Foundation, The Philadelphia Foundation, Independence Foundation, ARCO, SEPTA, and individual Philadelphia Folklore Project members. Keep It Real co-curators: Sandra Andino and DAN ONE. “Art Happens Here” co-curators: Teresa Jaynes and Debora Kodish.