Off the wall: Cornbread and other early graffiti artists speak

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Darryl McCray (right) and another film producer Sean McKnight at the Graffiti Bridge in North Philly.

There are no graffiti on the quiet East Germantown block of redbrick rowhouses where Darryl McCray lives. His home is modest, with a pink hydrangea bush out front. A black-and-white cat sleeps beneath a beige patio chair.

For McCray, 62, it's a subdued existence, considering that at one time he had celebrity status due entirely to the nickname he spray-painted all over Philadelphia:

Cornbread.

Legend has it that at age 17 he hopped a fence at the Philadelphia Zoo to spray-paint "Cornbread Lives" on the hind side of an elephant, a stunt to disprove a newspaper article that had mistakenly declared "Cornbread Shot to Death" about a murder outside a bar at 40th and Filbert Streets in West Philly.

"I had to do something to let them . . . know I still exist," Cornbread says in a new documentary film, Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, that will be screened at 7 p.m. Saturday at International House in University City.

In the movie, McCray says - and other former wall writers, including King Lewis and Kool Klepto Kidd, agree - that he was the one who tagged the elephant.

The movie shows a news clipping from the Philadelphia Tribune reporting that the teenager who had been killed outside the bar, Cornelius Hosey, was known as "Corn," not Cornbread.

In interviews this week, McCray conceded that he has a lengthy police record for crimes ranging from theft to disorderly conduct. But neither police nor the zoo have a record of the zoo incident - which would have happened when he was a juvenile.

In April 1971, the Inquirer reported: "One graffiti artist was caught red-handed at the Philadelphia Zoo after spray painting an elephant bright red."

Cornbread got his nickname during a stint in a juvenile detention center - where he spent two years beginning at age 12 - after he kept harassing the cook by continually asking him to bake corn bread like his grandmother did.

The documentary focuses on what filmmaker Roger Gastman calls "graffiti in its innocence" from 1967 to 1973.

From Los Angeles, Gastman called McCray's generation "the unsung heroes of graffiti and street art."

"They didn't see it as art. They were just writing their names . . . to get out of the ghetto, to have something to do, and as a way to be known."

The film goes back and forth on whether Philadelphia or New York writers were the first to tag walls and subway trains just to express themselves, and not as part of gang activity to mark turf.

In 1973, graffiti art began being sold in galleries. Today artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, the secretive street artist who paints political messages, are extraordinarily successful. Banksy has sold paintings for more than $1 million, Gastman said.

Graffiti is now a "billion-dollar industry" connected with fashion, and is shown in museums and in advertising campaigns, Gastman said.

"There's no question this is a massive industry and art form," said Gastman, who has curated street art shows in museums.

Back in 1971, Raymond Davis, a Philadelphia graffiti writer also known as Dr. Cool No. 1, complained to Daily News columnist Tom Fox that he had been robbed. A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had taken a tin from the street where Davis had spray-painted his tag and put the tin in an art gallery at 18th and Chestnut Streets.

"I never did it [writing] for money," Davis told Fox. "I did it for recognition, but now people are making money off me."

The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Admission: $9, students $7. McCray and other former wall writers will take part in a Q&A session and will sign copies of a Gastman book that will be available for sale.