Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

May 18–25, 2000

cover story

The Old Masters

Graffiti writers from decades past talk about the lost language of freehand, the Philly graffiti style that was.

by David Warner

More than two decades ago, when Jon Manteau was a 13-year-old daredevil decorating Philly train tunnels with stolen spray paint, it’s safe to say he wasn’t angling for a museum commission. Maybe if he’d held on to his Krylon a few years longer he too would be among the art stars in the ICA’s current show of graffiti-inspired work (part of the Wall Power collaboration with the Fleisher and the Mural Arts Program). But Manteau’s art has taken a different turn — and the style of wall writing he remembers has become "a lost culture," he says, like "early hieroglyphics."

Throughout most of his teens, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Manteau was a member of Klub City Decorators, or KCD — an integrated crew of high school-age graffiti writers from liberal, primarily middle-class families in Center City, West Philly, Mount Airy and Germantown, from schools like Central and Parkway Epsilon. Spearheaded by a Central student named Greg Davis, a.k.a. "T-Bone," KCD made it a point of pride never to tag private property, mostly hitting SEPTA tunnels and trains. And while graffiti in the previous decade had mostly been gang-related, a means of marking territory, KCD was more interested in the writing itself — art for art’s sake, as it were. Several club "alums," like Manteau, grew up to be artists for real. Davis is an internationally known jazz guitarist; another member, Tony DeMelas, is a painter and sculptor whose encaustic paintings made a splash recently in shows at Moore and the Pentimenti Gallery. There’s a writer and a prominent club owner in the bunch, too.

Not that KCD’s "art" was universally popular. Certainly the cops weren’t pleased. Their Rizzo-esque relentlessness was a constant challenge to writers; Manteau ("Mr. Beet") and DeMelas ("Stoney") were both arrested more than once. But ironically enough, the vigilance of the police played a pivotal role in the development of a recognizable Philly graffiti style. In New York, where the official attitude was more relaxed, the visuals were all bubble and Broadway, says DeMelas; writers had the time to make big statements, with color and filled-in letters. But in Philly, the goal was to write as fast and make as many hits as you could before getting caught. As a result, a scratchy "freehand" technique developed, a style of tagging that looks like a spontaneous scrawl but was really the result of hours of practice — highly personalized lettering in long, uninterrupted strokes that could be reproduced on the fly with spray cans or "baby jars" (baby food jars filled with ink and cotton-stuffed tube socks).

KCD members used to meet up with other clubs — including North Philly’s SAM (Sly Artistic Masters) and HCS (Hip City Swingers) — on Saturday afternoons at the 11th and Market SEPTA stop. "No matter who you were, no matter what your skin color was, as long as you were a writer you were accepted," says DeMelas. Manteau compares the gatherings to breakdance competitions. Writers took turns showing off their "hands" and local legends were burnished.

"So Cool’s ‘s’ was brilliant," says DeMelas, sketching it on a napkin as he sits outside an Old City restaurant. It’s recognizable as an "s" — or, for that matter, as a letter of the alphabet — only to the trained eye.

Eventually, the KCD began to dissipate — mostly because youths like DeMelas and Manteau realized that once they turned 18 they would be jailed as adults, not just thrown into "juvey." The old-school freehand techniques have mostly disappeared as well, to be replaced by the more showy, less individualized NY style. Now that so much graffiti art has been mainstreamed into pop culture or sanctified by the art establishment, the thrill is gone — and yesterday’s KCD kid is more likely today to be channeling his wall-writing impulses into a city-sanctioned mural.

Which, says Manteau, is a good thing. "If they can get kids interested in art directly without really having to go through graffiti, why not? It’s healthier."

He says he’s consciously tried to avoid graffiti influences in his painting, though he says his telephone doodles (and his handwriting) still look like freehand. Tony DeMelas says KCD taught him lasting lessons about line and form, about how to be both "trained and uninhibited," that still inform his artwork.

But both remain nostalgic for the purity of the old school. "We were pre-graffiti as marketed art," says Manteau. "It was like Japanese calligraphy."

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