June 1724, 1999
The Writer's Art
The Art of Getting Over looks at graffiti in Philadelphia and the world.
by Neil Gladstone
You spend hours, days, sometimes even weeks scoping out your spot. Maybe its a billboard or bridge support or the musty inside of an overpass. You time it just right, making sure cars, pedestrians and cops will be out of sight. Then you strike, splattering your alter ego across cement, every letter a heart-pounding improvisation. The glory comes the next morning, when youve got spray paint encrusted in your fingernails and your mark blares out from the urban landscape, to the disgust of upstanding citizens and admiration of other writers.
This was the thrill of being a graffiti artist, recalls Suroc, one of several underground Philly legends whose work is showcased in the new book The Art of Getting Over (St. Martins Press). It has been about 10 years since Suroc, 30, scrawled his tag on back alleys and abandoned buildings across town, yet he still doesnt want more than his first name, Nick, in print. ("Ive done a lot of damage," he admits.) Now a salesman for a telecommunications company, he regularly wears a button-down shirt and tie to work, but is happy to reminisce about Philadelphias graffiti history and his place in it.
"Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern graffiti," he says, mentioning the late 60s local hero Cornbread who began writing on walls to impress a girl and an early 70s New York Times article that deemed the City of Brotherly Love "graffiti capital" of the world.
This town gave the world ghetto style, wickeds and the tall print, where the approach forewent slickness in favor of a ragged attack that often overexaggerates letters and accents the rhythm of delivery.
Stephen Powers, author of The Art of Getting Over, knows these styles well he grew up in the Overbrook section of town.
"Theres something about getting the whole body into the work that only exists in Philadelphia, and maybe Brazil," says Powers, 31, noting the tendency for local taggers to stretch a letter to the extent of their reach.
The author started spray painting at age 14, on the back of his neighborhood 7-Eleven.
"I remember telling someone [at age 16], Graffiti is garbage give me a month and I can master it. Here I am, still chasing it 12 years later."
Powers estimates that 75 percent of the kids in his neighborhood were taggers, but he only got serious about it in his late teens and early 20s when he began publishing On the Go a zine celebrating the artwork others consider urban blight.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people who dont see the beauty of a wall covered in tags, but the majority isnt always right," he defends. Similar to On The Go, The Art of Getting Over features glossy images of favorite tags interspersed with short profiles of infamous writers.
Powers went on to study graphic design at the University of the Arts. In 94, he relocated to New York and now works as a commercial artist. For both Powers and Suroc, graffiti isnt as much artwork or vandalism as a mode of self-definition.
"Being a disenfranchised youth, its something you can invest in to reinvent yourself," explains Suroc. Sure, you get caught, levied with fines and trouble on the homefront, but it was all part of risk you took thats why a well-respected graffiti writer, at least in Surocs heyday, was given Robin Hood status and treated like the neighborhood rock star.
Of course, the City of Philadelphia doesnt hold taggers in such high esteem. This year it will spend $3.5 million on painting over and cleaning spray-painted names as well as the Mural Arts program, which puts up new murals. "Theres a great difference between people who do throw up pieces and taggers," says Tom Conway, deputy managing director of Philadelphia. "People who do pieces usually have the permission of the property owner. But I dont see how anyone could say that taggers are artists."
For Suroc, graffiti has larger implications than just teenage kicks. Writing your name on the wall is a form of anti-capitalist self-promotion in a consumer culture where logos and brand names vie for your attention everywhere you look.
By spraying your tag on a billboard or next to the ad on the side of a bus, youre putting yourself (or at least your alter ego) on the same level as multimillion dollar corporations, he contends.
"The seizure of cultural space for guerilla means is a beautiful thing," he adds, still something of a rebel even though he spent five years as an enlisted man in the army.
Business owners regularly spend thousands of dollars removing the tags and many point to it as one of the reasons Philadelphians leave the city.
"On the superficial level youre hurting the property of a legitimate business owner," acknowledges Suroc. But those who blame graffiti writers for Phillys quality of life problems are using them as scapegoats rather than addressing the larger ills of the city, says Powers. "Theres a lot of graffiti in New York and theres still a lot of money and businesses here," he argues.
Not surprisingly, the author downplays the negative aspects of graffiti, explaining that the paint doesnt damage a propertys structure, but is only a coating that will eventually fade away. He also refrains from talking too much about writers whove gotten caught up in the seedier elements of street life, saying that graffiti is something many graduate from but some dont.
Still, of all the cities where hes documented graffiti (Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., New York), he declares Philadelphias attitude the most "maniacal."
"In a town where property values have never been that great to begin with, its kind of a funny thing to point a finger at graffiti and say thats why property values arent as worthwhile as a New York property or Connecticut property."
The harsh sentences levied by Philadelphia judges toward graffiti artists wont stop the pastime, he contends, but have spawned a type of writer whos less interested in making impressive designs and more concerned with just scrawling a black tag as quickly as possible.
New York police are much more lenient, generally leaving a tagger alone as long as he or she stays off the transit system and highways, he says.
"Personally, I like riding on a clean train, so it doesnt bother me."
Even though Powers may be much older than the average graffiti writer, he continues to hit the streets of New York two or three times a week, leaving his tag, "Espo," in places where he hopes it will "jar the viewer." On average, his pieces require six hours of work, so he typcially opts for benign locations.
Given the little chance for artistic acclaim or monetary gain, why do writers continue to take the risk?
"Graffiti is like the last thing people can invest all of their love and not see it whored out in the next issue of The Source," he says. "If its done right there will never be any money in graffiti."