At first, as Cornbread walked through Graffiti Pier on Friday morning, the sights looked familiar.
“It’s like deja vu,” he said, hoping to find a tag he’d sprayed a dozen years before on the abandoned coal pier that juts into the Delaware River.
Then the graffiti pioneer turned around and realized how much had changed. Through the archways he saw glimpses of seemingly infinite cement canvases, in too many neons and pastels to define a color scheme, from tags to portraits in an array of styles. Graffiti was everywhere the last time he came through, but seeing it again, he knew the art had multiplied.
"This is Philadelphia, the birthplace of graffiti culture,” declared the man born 65 years ago as Darryl McCray, with pride in his eyes.
"They got all types of things in New York,” he continued, speaking of 5Pointz, the destroyed graffiti landmark that inspired a museum based in a hotel stairwell. "Can’t touch this.”
Conrail, the owner of Graffiti Pier, has an agreement to sell the iconic locale to the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), which plans to convert it into a public park.
The coal pier stopped operating in 1978 and officially closed in 1991. According to Conrail officials, the pier became popular among graffiti artists in the late ’90s, but has reached new heights in the last decade. Jocelyn Gabrynowicz Hill, Conrail’s corporate affairs director and deputy general counsel, said much of the interest comes from Instagram.
Authorities began to crack down on trespassing last year following reports of a drowning and violent crime.
Representatives of the DRWC, which rehabilitated Race Street Pier, Cherry Street Pier, and Washington Avenue Pier, say the look of the park, as well as the sale itself, hinge on what will come from a structural investigation into the pier’s safety.
“We don’t even have an initial design, but we want to keep the same creative spirit in that place,” said Almaz Crowe, DRWC’s director of communications and marketing.
Tyson Mitman, author of The Art of Defiance: Graffiti Culture in Philadelphia, calls the pier a “preserve” that welcomes formidable artists looking to show off as well as people taking their first stabs at the craft. What also coexists there, he said, are New York graffiti styles that easily earn praise, and more traditional Philly approaches, like “wickeds,” that aren’t as appreciated artistically.
Wickeds appear as curved, even jagged, line-based scripts that can take time to decipher. At the pier, Mitman said, where paint covers wherever artists can reach and where work is constantly covered over with new graffiti, there’s space for different techniques.
Cornbread, a North Philly native who began “wall writing” in the 1960s before New York’s graffiti culture took shape, couldn’t find the tag he had left. His art, he explained, remains his classic signature. He’ll be exhibiting his graffiti at Paradigm Gallery in a show that opens July 26. His tag at the pier had likely been covered up by other artists in the space’s constant evolution. He didn’t seem to mind too much.
“It shows the progression over the years,” he said of the pier. “A lot of the [early] guys, including myself, didn’t know we were making history.”
On Friday, as the light fell through open spaces between concrete slabs, Cornbread lingered over the more figurative street art, like portraits of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the thicker “bombs” with colorful lettering. The art on display reminded him of premiere graffiti spaces he’d seen in Europe, where, he argued, street artists command more respect.
DRWC plans “extensive dialogue” with Port Richmond residents and graffiti artists while plotting a path forward for the pier, according to its president, Joe Forkin. At this point, Forkin said, the agency doesn’t know whether artists will be able to continue to add work or whether the renovated pier will be like “a snapshot in time.”
“Is it preserved as it is now? Is it an open air gallery that’s ever-changing? We don’t know the answer to that,” Forkin said.
The chance that the pier may stop welcoming artists has stoked concern for many, including Cornbread.
Charlyn Griffith, who goes by “ORO ORI” artistically, said the city has a "sordid history” with its treatment of graffiti, and remains a place where artists are arrested. The pier was a space where artists could work unbothered.
“It’s been a set of free walls in the city that’s been safe for people to be on, at least from criminalization,” said Griffith, 38, of North Philadelphia, who has made art at the pier.
Having that change, Griffith continued, would be a loss, particularly considering that graffiti is an art form born of marginalized people who don’t always have the same access to fine art galleries, or the means to be heard in society.
Gabrynowicz Hill is against any plan that would bar fresh graffiti.
“I will do my part to make sure that this is kept open to artists," she said. “The whole point is that it is ever-changing. That’s the beauty of this place.”
Cornbread agrees. He wants the pier to continue to evolve. And he wants Philadelphia to do more for its graffiti culture.
“There needs to be more outlets like this," he said. "This and FDR Park is not enough. You have more generations coming up.”