Graffiti Takeover

Graffiti Takeover


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Most of the fascinations for graffiti came from the white kids, from all different class backgrounds, while the Asian

and black kids didn’t care for the “takeover” of Philadelphia. The Asians in Upper Darby, predominately

Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, were occupied with their own scene. Some blacks, however,

gave me a different perspective as to why they had little interest with graffiti in Philadelphia.




Graffiti Takeover, Bombing, & Racism

By Charles Chea


In the mainstream, and even in the underground, graffiti is praised as the urban visual art form. On MTV, Urban Outfitters’ t-shirts, and other mainstream media outlets, graffiti has become a heavy commodity. In the underground, people see graffiti as an important element of Hip Hop and plaster it all over their parties and album covers.

 Graffiti has also caused a lot of controversy, predominately being attacked by city government and right wing opponents, arguing that it is destructive and costly. As a former writer, the proper reference for a graffiti artist as opposed to “tagger”, I’ve thought a lot about graffiti as both an urban art form and an outlet of destruction. In many ways, through the revelations made in my own life, both perspectives are very true.

It was either in the 6th or 7th grade when I was first introduced to the graffiti scene. This white kid named Tim from the Overbrook section of Philadelphia moved into my hometown, Upper Darby, which happens to neighbor West Philadelphia. I immediately became friends with him when he moved to my town and I would end up becoming his protégé.

He taught me the trademark Philly graffiti styles, how to distinguish crews and squads, and introduced me to other writers. We would meet other writers while roaming Philadelphia and while in school, some who happened to be the most infamous writers and part of the most notorious crews in Philadelphia. Most of the time, I was the only Asian kid. Everyone else was black with a few token white boys from Philly. 99.9% of time, we were all males.

It would only be a matter of time until the graffiti “bug” affected the rest of the town. Within a short period of time since he moved to Upper Darby, he had built quite a report with a lot of the white kids in town, and everyone was carrying Sharpie markers now. Beginners and “toys” (an offensive slang referring to corny writers) wrote all over the town, but the more experienced and reputable writers were bombing Philadelphia.

Going into the city and writing in different sections of the city was considered a “takeover.” It was a means of building credibility and it was an ecstatic way to introduce suburban kids to the city ghettos. (Note: To briefly describe Upper Darby, it is a town that’s predominately lower to middle class, but the segregated dynamic has kept people of color and lower-income whites on one side of town, while a section called Drexel Hill is largely occupied by middle-upper class whites)

Most of the fascinations for graffiti came from the white kids, from all different class backgrounds, while the Asian and black kids didn’t care for the “takeover” of Philadelphia. The Asians in Upper Darby, predominately Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, were occupied with their own scene. Some blacks, however, gave me a different perspective as to why they had little interest with graffiti in Philadelphia.

One night in high school, a white friend of mine named Liam and I decided to go routing, a slang referring to walking around solely to write graffiti. This was our first time doing so in West Philadelphia. We walked down to 63rd St and Market St, which happens to be a few blocks from my neighborhood, looking for walls to write on.

When we reached 61st St, a black teenager a bit older than us immediately approached, and asked us if we had any change. I gave him what little I had on me, and for some dubious reason, I asked him if he was a writer. He told me he wasn’t. Liam and I started walking back to Upper Darby because I started feeling uncomfortable. While we walked back, from a distance, he yelled out words I will never forget: “Don’t fuck up my neighborhood, ya’ hear?”

Graffiti is often glamorized by the media, by whites and people of color (more often whites though), by females and males, by suburban and urban people. For even the most conscious of activists, graffiti is really an unfamiliar subject that gets idealized as what they hope it to be, rather than seeing what it really is at times. Likewise, conservatives usually don’t know anything about it either and constitute it as a grimy, pathological black product.

Everyone needs to understand what the graffiti scene really is and who the writers are. Everyone needs to listen to the voice of discontent from the black youth I met, in a city rampant with institutional racism and poverty. Let us question concepts like “takeover” in this case where race, class, and gender issues intersect. Let us not make it so easy for destructive forces to be ignored, and let’s continually question what graffiti really means for impoverished neighborhoods and all the people who live there.

Charles Chea is a Sociology student at UMass-Boston who is originally from Philadelphia. chea@asiavists.org

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update 14 December 2011




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