Most people make the assumption that New York City birthed graffiti. While the Big Apple certainly made it famous, the credit actually goes to a Philadelphia legend, CORNBREAD, whose unique tag resonated through the City of Brotherly Love beginning in the late '60s.
Before he would be credited with creating what we know as "graffiti" in a contemporary context, CORNBREAD was Daryl Alexander McCray. He got into his fair share of trouble as a kid and was eventually shipped off to the Youth Development Center corrections facility for "juvenile delinquents." He was dismayed when he found out that the mess hall didn't have — you guessed it — "cornbread." Every day he'd ask the ornery cook why it wasn't on the menu? After days of pestering him, the cook finally yelled at him to get out of his kitchen — referencing Daryl as "Cornbread."
While others used the nickname to torment him, he reframed what was a slight, and actually embraced it.
The name "Cornbread" was first written on the back of his T-shirts, and eventually on the walls of the facility. Most of the scrawls were gang call-outs — all except for CORNBREAD — who was more concerned with self-promotion, than repping a North Philly set.
After he was released, he wrote his first tag as a free young man inside Strawberry Mansion Junior High School.
"CORNBREAD loves Cynthia."
"When I arrived, it was the third week after schools started in September," he said. "The teacher introduced me and I scanned the room for the prettiest girl. There I found her in the back row. And I saw a vacant seat next to her. She didn’t mind me being her friend. She was kind of smart. I started walking her home everyday, but she always told me that she didn’t want a boyfriend. I started tagging on our route home: 'Cornbread loves Cynthia.' She didn’t think it was for her. 'There are so many Cynthias,' she’d say. 'I don’t even know a Cornbread,' she’d say. One day, I wrote it in chalk on her house and she came to school and told me, 'That bastard wrote his name on my house!' Cornbread was a phantom to her. But Cornbread had made her popular. All her girlfriends wanted to know who Cornbread was."
By 12, CORNBREAD was writing his name all over the city. While we certainly saw earlier examples of people writing things on public property — most notably "Kilroy was Here" — he was amongst the first to do it with flare.
By 1969, CORNBREAD says there were hundreds of active graffiti writers. Collectively, they were all contributing what would be known in both Philly and New York City as the "single hit" era which preceded the introduction of spray paint by several years. At that time, the name of the game was frequency over artistry.
CORNBREAD made it a point to visit the kids who he had been in the correctional facility with. Since many were in gangs, CORNBREAD was able to have " green pass" which allowed him to put his moniker up in areas that might have been off limits for others. This synergy between early graffiti writers and gangs became known as the"Philadelphia Gang Hand."
According to The History of American Graffiti, "The style was developed in the late 1960s and perfected in the early 1970s, as graffiti writers added their own personal touches to it: Tags became elongated and exaggerated; a dip turned into a hook and then a swirl; whimsical letter shapes leaned to one side while standing on feet or platforms."
Eventually, CORNBREAD outgrew the markers because so many other writers were replicating his style of self-promotion. He eventually graduated to spray paint. It was as important a moment in graffiti as the introduction of the dunk in basketball.
"I was the only person in the city of Philadelphia who wrote their name in spray paint for the purpose of establishing a reputation for myself, CORNBREAD said in Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence.. "In fact, I was the only person in the world who was writing their name in spray paint on city walls for the purpose of establishing a reputation for themselves."
Graffiti was about oneupmanship. As others took note of how spray paint could leave a much bolder mark than a marker, CORNBREAD focused more on hard to reach places. While these places would later become known in certain instances as "heaven spots," — indicating that a person might die trying to reach them — CORNBREAD sought out much more unique spots in an attempt to draw media attention.
CORNBREAD was going viral decades before that term was invented. His legend about who, what, where, when, and why he was writing his name serves as a pre-cursor to contemporary artists like Banksy. On one occasion, CORNBREAD opened the newspaper and it stated he had been shot to death in the head on 40th and Filbert Street.
“I was on the bus one day, reading the newspaper and it said ‘Cornbread is shot to death,’" he said. "I knew I had to do something amazingly bizarre to let people know I wasn’t dead. I started writing ‘the real Cornbread is not dead,’ but people thought it was an imposter. So I go to the zoo. It’s a big tourist attraction. I watch the zookeeper shower the elephant with a hose, watch him tug on his flappy ears, and pat his side. The elephant is tame. I saw the zookeeper was not in danger. After three days of watching this, I go to the zoo early in the morning, climb over the fence, into elephant’s enclosure. I take the top off the spray paint, start shaking. The balls start rattling. He turns around, he looks at me, doesn’t pay attention. I paint ‘Cornbread lives’ right on his side."
These daring missions only elevated CORNBREAD's standings in Philadelphia. The legend would only grow when the Jackson Five announced they were coming to town.
"If you wanted their autograph, [you had] to go down to the Philadelphia International Airport," he said. "One of my objectives was to spray paint my name on the parked airplanes. But I knew that if I spray painted the Jackson 5’s airplane, people would talk about it wherever it went. So the plane came in, and back then, you had the terminal, he ground, and the airplane. Back then, you could rush the plane to town and get autographs. The plane touched down. Michael Jackson was the first one to come out, and it was chaos. The entourage came down the steps. I ran up the steps to the side of the plane and wrote CORNBREAD.I went back in the terminal, waiting for this plane to take off. The plane refuels, sits, waits an hour and a half, then the propellers went off and the plane went off—its final destination was California. When it got to California, naturally it made the news: “Philadelphia graffiti artist spray paints TWA jet!”
Today, graffiti is a multi-billion dollar industry that fuels national ad campaigns. Without CORNBREAD's contributions, the art form wouldn't have reached a global scale.