One of Philadelphia’s best-known graffiti writers, Darryl McCray, got his name “Cornbread” from an ornery cook at a youth detention center during one of his early stays. McCray kept pestering the cook with demands for cornbread instead of the stale white bread being served.
He didn’t get the cornbread, but he got the name. And the name stuck — not just to McCray, but to walls all over the city when he started tagging in the late 1960s. He was just a teenager then, his parents gone. Then the grandmother who raised him died. Cornbread remembers at one point being a young man writing on walls and crying.
Pre-Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, McCray’s tagging got him instant notoriety.
“When I realized all I had to do was write my name on bizarre things, I became a glutton for publicity...and the media was more than glad to accommodate me,” he remembers.
He cannily kept upping the ante — tagging the Jackson 5 plane, police cars, and in one of his favorite stories, an elephant.
“I was on the bus one day, reading the newspaper and it said ‘Cornbread is shot to death.’ 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.”
It seemed to work. At least the police, who arrested him, knew he was alive.
McCray still lives in Philadelphia. One of his aims is to have his story told in a film — not just to document his life, but to correct a Hollywood wrong when the 1975 movie “Cornbread, Earl and Me” appropriated his name but not his story. For more, see cornbreadthelegend.com or watch the video on philly.com.