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The Legend of Cornbread

Words:

Edd Norval
November 5, 2021

This is nothing like my grandma’s cornbread, the young Darryl McCray used to tell the cook at the Youth Development Centre in Philadelphia - a correctional facility for young street kids. His badgering was so repetitive, in protest against the cook’s preference for baking white bread, that he took to calling the young McCray ‘Cornbread’, unbeknownst to them that a legend was born.

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In the facility, McCray watched other kids from the various gangs that constituted the centre’s make-up tagging their names on walls. It was a primitive and tribal way to claim certain spots, to leave your mark like a cat sprays its piss.


Whilst he wasn’t a part of the gangs, he began tagging to make himself count beside them. ‘Cornbread’ began popping up around the place, an outlier amongst the various competing factions. McCray began to see the impact. People noticed the gang tags and they noticed his too. It was a means of communicating something for the youngster, an idea he built on after his release. 


This time it wasn’t communicating his presence to others in juvie, but declaring love to his high-school sweetheart. Uncertain whether his crush on Cynthia Custuss was reciprocated, the artist began to spray ‘Cornbread Loves Cynthia’ around North Philadelphia. After winning her heart - although we cannot confirm how much of that came down to the tags - he kept the painting up, with rudimentary tags that many consider to be pioneering in the American graffiti scene.

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It was from Phillie that the movement ended up making waves in New York, from the 60s when Cornbread started, to its peak in the 1980s. It wasn’t just the act of writing that was innovative, but his methodology of getting noticed. Just like in the juvie centre, his priority was visibility. Back in Philadelphia in those days, bus routes were opportunities of maximum exposure. 


He’d paint in spots where passengers would see from the windows, a precursor to the work that punctuated train journeys around New York in the following years. As the man himself said, “You couldn’t help but read my name because I was the only one doing it. The whole town belonged to me.” This mentality became embodied by writers the world over who turned the streets into a battleground. Who could get up the most? Who tagged the most prominent spots?


Cornbread’s appeal always had something iconoclastic. Besides being a pioneer, his scrappy tags dripped with personality. His eccentricity came through in his writing. Both stylistically and in the sheer pervasiveness of it. It was literally everywhere and by default, everybody knew who he was, without actually knowing who he was. A name without a face, a story without a conclusion.

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This sense of mystery and notoriety undoubtedly drew many other writers into the craft, as well as pushing them to develop their own style to differentiate themselves in an increasingly saturated field. Still, even when new faces began to take up space, Cornbread was committed to keeping himself head and shoulders above the others. From climbing into the elephant enclosure at the Philadelphia Zoo, daubing the side of one of the animals, to tagging Jackson Five’s airplane - Cornbread was a draw.


His contribution to the culture of graffiti, as well as the overall emerging urban cultures that surrounded it like breaking and flash dressing, positions him with a true claim as being the Godfather of Graffiti - a true original whose art and antics set the benchmark for graffiti as a subculture worldwide. In any book on the subject, Cornbread must be in its foreword. 

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