Hit the Wall
|Photographs by Jeff
Fusco. Artwork by Spel. |
Two decades ago the
Mural Arts Program's celebrated director tried to save a
talented painted from the streets. Now they're working
together in prison.
Inside a conference room at Graterford Prison some 31
miles west of the city, Scott Feifer, a 41-year-old
seventh-grade English teacher from Lancaster, lays out the
deal to his 13 creative writing students.
â€œWrite about what you love and know,â€ he urges the seven
Graterford inmates in maroon jumpsuits and six teens sporting
the green knit shirts of St. Gabrielâ€™s Hall, a Montgomery
County reformatory. â€œWrite about your favorite food. It might
take you someplace you donâ€™t expect. Write about anything,
write till your hand starts to hurt, but keep your heart close
Ten minutes later he asks his proteges to read their
Tom, a professorial-looking lifer from Philadelphia, tells
about a long ago hot night in his Center City apartment when
he thought he had everything he needed to be happyâ€”money,
girlsâ€™ phone numbers and lots of drugs.
Stan, another lifer from Philly, writes of manning a booth
at a recent family fun day at the prison, and how it jolted
him into realizing heâ€™d never have children.
Others reflect on childhoods shortened by tough lives on
the street, on growing up poor, on beatings by thugs and cops,
on joyful block parties.
Then itâ€™s Jane Goldenâ€™s turn to read. Golden is the
turbocharged director of Phillyâ€™s celebrated Mural Arts
Program, the wonâ€™t-take-no-for-an-answer dervish who over the
past two decades has commandeered some 2,700 walls, many once
graffiti-marred, and left behind likenesses of Julius Erving,
Jackie Robinson and Mario Lanza, as well as dozens of
anonymous yet poignant countenances and scenes.
Goldenâ€™s back in the news now that her organizationâ€™s
All Join Hands antiviolence mural covering one side of
Ben Franklin High School is nearing dedication.
â€œI remember,â€ she begins, â€œthe early days, going to El
stops and asking graffiti writers whether theyâ€™d like a new
profession, driving up to drug corners like Eighth and Butler.
I remember thinking if we lost one more kid to crack or
violence, then shame on all of us.â€
It was near the end of the â€™80s, and Goldenâ€”then in
her early 30sâ€”was standing across the street from a row house,
accompanied by her assistant, notorious graffiti writer
Anthony â€œTranâ€ Jones.
In her pocket she carried the Pledge, a sheet of paper
bearing the inscription of the Anti-Graffiti Network.
Goldenâ€™s mission was to get Hernan â€œSpelâ€ Cortesâ€™ signature
on that card.
Those who signed and kept their word to stop defacing walls
were granted amnesty from prosecution in a city whose mayor,
Wilson Goode, had declared war on graffiti.
â€œGraffiti is bad. Itâ€™s ugly,â€ Goode announced late in â€™83.
â€œIt mars this entire city. It keeps businesses away. It
Minneapolis and raised in Margate, N.J., Golden earned an
art degree from Stanford in 1978, and then moved to L.A.,
where she became a celebrated muralist. But after becoming ill
with lupus, an autoimmune disease one doctor predicted would
kill her, she flew back east, convalesced for a short time and
then in 1984 persuaded Tim Spencer, the Anti-Graffiti
Networkâ€™s first boss, to hire her to run one of the Networkâ€™s
|Still lifer: Spel (in a
Spencer, who died in 1996, initially envisioned her
diverting graffiti taggers toward various arts and crafts, but
Golden convinced him painting murals would be better.
Sitting in the Thomas Eakins House in Spring Garden, Mural
Arts headquarters since 2001, Golden recalls why the idea
â€œI just thought, â€˜Boy, I bet these guys would really like
doing murals because theyâ€™re big, theyâ€™re outdoors. Theyâ€™re
natural wall hunters and theyâ€™re clearly not scared of
For several years she and Tran schlepped around in her
dented Ford (once an undercover police car), trying to engage
wall writers, and admiring their better work along the way.
Spelâ€™s name came up frequently.
â€œHeâ€™d show me Spelâ€™s pieces,â€ Golden recalls. â€œThe big
colorful ones with scenic backgroundsâ€”burners or New Yorkers,
they called themâ€”and Iâ€™d be like, â€˜God, this guyâ€™s so
talented. Letâ€™s recruit him.â€™ You see some graffiti, and even
if itâ€™s pretty good, you feel like youâ€™ve seen a million like
them. His stood out.â€
As Golden navigated the cityâ€™s graffiti subculture, she
heard Hardcore and Toy dropping fellow writer Spelâ€™s name.
Jonathan Heard, a Graffiti Network employee for more than
20 years and a fabled â€™70s wall writer in his own right (his
â€œJohnskiâ€ tag was almost as recognizable as â€œCornbreadâ€), says
Spel had serious cred.
â€œHe had more of a New York style. He did big things with a
lot of colors,â€ Heard says. â€œCornbread and myself, we were
basic black and silver, hit and split. He had a real nice
Another Mural Arts employee and ex-writer who gives his
name only as â€œSmackâ€ recalls a burner Spel did on a wall at
South Phillyâ€™s Bok Vocational High School depicting a
flamboyant character strutting along while wearing headphones,
his face contorted in agony.
â€œHe just threw it up,â€ Smack says. â€œEverything he did was
Golden finally crossed paths with Spel one night as he
talked shop with taggers Delta, Faid, Teaz and Met on the
steps of an El station, a favorite huddling spot.
Spel, slight but self-assured, said he wanted nothing to do
with the anti-graffiti movement.
â€œSome viewed me as law enforcement, and he was like that,â€
Golden says. â€œHe wasnâ€™t hostile, but he wasnâ€™t that friendly
either. He was like, â€˜Sheâ€™s a cop. Sheâ€™s from Anti.â€™â€ She
laughs. â€œI found him arrogant, actually, but I found a lot of
them arrogant. Being with Anti-Graffiti was like having a
stamp on my forehead.â€
Golden kept putting out feelers, hoping to win Spel over,
but the answer always came back the same: No way.
She eventually gave up, though she did so reluctantly,
knowing the Network could help a kid with Spelâ€™s talent. There
was, for example, Teddy â€œKnifeâ€ Harris, who joined at 15 to
enhance his painting skills, then discovered poetry and
cultivated a strong following.
â€œSome of them started producing their own work that was
pretty sophisticated,â€ Golden says. â€œI introduced them to some
fairly well-known artists and critics. I still wonder what
mightâ€™ve happened with Spel if heâ€™d joined.â€
Maureen Rush remembers working for the narcotics
strike force charged with closing down the open-air drug
market at Seventh and Tioga that prospered in the late â€™80s
and early â€™90s.
â€œIt was one of the worst in the city,â€ says Rush, a former
police officer and lieutenant who now serves as vice president
for public safety at Penn. â€œQuite possibly the worst.â€
Drivers were inundated by dealers offering blowâ€”blue bag,
red bag, yellow bag, clear bag.
â€œIn the middle of the day,â€ Rush says. â€œThey were so
Most of the dealers, young though they were, understood the
basic business principleâ€”that satisfied customers returnâ€”so
â€œgaggingâ€ (selling bogus product) was a no-no, as was robbing
None of that saved Martin Brill. According to reports of
the preliminary hearing, the 35-year-old Southwest Philly
resident and a companion pulled up to Seventh and Tioga on a
morning in late June 1990 looking to buy coke.
Brill left his car. A man pulled a gun. Brill tried to
wrestle it away, and the man shot him. As he ran back to his
car, another man fired two more shots.
Less than two weeks later homicide detectives arrested Adam
â€œSasquatchâ€ Colon, and charged him with robbing and murdering
Brill. Three days after that, based on statements by Colon and
a witness, they arrested Hernan â€œSpelâ€ Cortes, and charged him
Colon and Cortes were tried in January 1992, and found
guilty of second-degree murder. Both received the mandatory
sentenceâ€”life without parole.
Colon is serving his sentence at SCI Coal Township. Spel
arrived at Graterford in November 1992.
Golden intensified her work in
prisons after giving a talk at Graterford and getting a ton of
letters from inmates in response.
â€œThey were telling me to keep up my enthusiasm,â€ she says.
â€œThey said if theyâ€™d had something like a mural arts
program, they might not be here today.â€
When a Department of Corrections art therapist asked if
sheâ€™d consider creating a regular program at Graterford, her
first thought was about the time it would take.
â€œBut then I thought about the many neighborhoods where I
meet moms who have a kid whoâ€™s dead and a kid whoâ€™s in jail,â€
she says, â€œso if weâ€™re working with the whole community,
shouldnâ€™t we extend it to the prisons?â€
Today some 30 Graterford inmates earn 51 cents an hour
painting murals on parachute cloth as a full-time prison
Hernan â€œSpelâ€ Cortes is one of them.
Golden didnâ€™t know Spel was assigned to Graterford until
after sheâ€™d agreed to launch a program there. Told one of the
inmates knew her, she drew a blank.
â€œHe goes, â€˜Spel,â€™ and I was like, â€˜Oh, God.â€™ It just broke
On the first day of class Spel showed Golden abstract
paintings heâ€™d done on canvases with brushes. She was
In the five years since their
reunion, Spel and his colleagues have made up for lost time.
In 2004 they collaborated with crime victims on the Healing
Walls project that yielded a series of murals covering walls
on Germantown Avenue near West Glenwood Avenue. One depicts
victimsâ€™ journeys; the other portrays convict transformations.
Last year they created eight murals on parachute clothâ€”a
lightweight, durable fabric thatâ€™s affixed to walls with
acrylic gelâ€”now on display out in the world. And this year
they contributed to All Join Hands, which includes
faces and words addressing violence in the city.
Sensitive to being labeled as someone who believes all
criminals are misunderstood, Golden talks a lot about crime
â€œThere have to be consequences for violent offenders,â€ she
â€œBut this doesnâ€™t preclude rehabilitation or help. People
should be offered opportunities to change, even if they never
see the outside world again.â€
Angela Crafton, once a junkie who supported heroin
and cocaine addictions by â€œboostingâ€ items from supermarkets
and fencing them for cheap at mom-and-pop groceries, remembers
being in the passenger seat of the car sheâ€™d stolen days
earlier as her friend steered it recklessly through the
streets of Kensington with cops in pursuit.
Now eight years later, Crafton, a 35-year-old Bucks County
native, is a Temple grad teaching mural painting to juvenile
inmates at the Northeastâ€™s House of Correction. Lori Pompa,
the director of Templeâ€™s Inside Out prison exchange program,
had urged her to give Golden a call. (Crafton had participated
in Inside Out while serving a year in the Philadelphia
Industrial Correctional Center in 1999, the fallout from the
car chase and other narcotics-related arrests.)
Crafton presides over six baby-faced prisoners clad in
hospital scrubs and shower shoes, who clutch paintbrushes and
kneel over cloth panels that have been spread out on the floor
of a cell block activities room.
Golden has dropped by to check on the mural in progress,
one of a half-dozen All Join Hands â€œsatellitesâ€ going
up around the city. This one, which will grace a rec center
wall at 58th and Chester, depicts a smiling manâ€™s profile and
a palms-up hand gesture, among other images.
|All Join Hands goes up at
Ben Franklin High School.|
One 15-year-old painter with a peach-fuzz mustache says
heâ€™s facing his second attempted-murder case. Another, who
looks about the same age, allows only that heâ€™s in for
homicide. A third, whoâ€™s taller and more physically mature,
says heâ€™s 17 and will soon be eligible for parole.
Golden, in jeans and sneakers, asks them to take a
She tells them that after their release they can get
part-time jobs with her mural corps program, which lets young
people plan and create murals with professionals.
â€œItâ€™s a serious offer,â€ she says.
She also wants to talk about urban violence to see if they
have any thoughts on how to thwart or reduce it.
The kid whoâ€™ll say only that heâ€™s in for homicide says
sending killers upstate for the rest of their lives isnâ€™t
Another kid points out thereâ€™d be fewer murders if people
stopped selling drugs on each otherâ€™s turf.
â€œBut do you have to kill a person for doing that?â€ Golden
â€œYeah,â€ he answers. â€œYeah, you do.â€
A third kid explains that sometimes feuding teens will
declare their dispute has reached â€œon-sightâ€ status. â€œThat
mean he gonna shoot you on sight. So if you know that, you
gonna want to see him first and shoot him on sight. Right?â€
On the ride back into the city Golden says sheâ€™s heard of
cases in which a 13-year-old has killed someone, been taken to
jail and asked what time his mom was coming to pick him up.
Cortes remembers being ushered into a squad car two weeks
after Brillâ€™s murder, and trying to convince two homicide
detectives they were making a mistake.
|Golden touch: Jane's
legendary efforts over the years have made Philly a
famous mural mecca.|
â€œI kept telling them they had the wrong guy,â€ he says.
He sits in a small room in the Graterford visitor center,
munching on Sun Chips and looking much the same as he probably
did to Golden a couple of decades ago: boyish, short brown
hair, light goatee, wiry frame.
But now he sports a maroon jumpsuit.
Heâ€™s been wearing it for 14 years, and even his supporters
wonder whether heâ€™ll ever get to shed it. Heâ€™s lost three
But Cortes, who has a 19-year-old daughter, maintains an
unwavering faith heâ€™ll regain his freedom.
He says if he never gets out it would mean â€œeverything Iâ€™m
doing with my life is kind of pointless.â€
Those whoâ€™ve seen the paintings heâ€™s done might take issue
His artwork, which tends toward the abstract, is attracting
art connoisseurs the way his graffiti once attracted
â€œHeâ€™s a really, really strong painter,â€ Golden says. â€œIf he
were out in the world, thereâ€™s a good chance heâ€™d be showing
in New York.â€
Born in 1967, Cortes moved with his mother several
times around North Philadelphia before relocating to
Providence, R.I., when he was 9. In Providence, Cortes, whoâ€™d
demonstrated drawing prowess in his formative years,
cultivated his trademark wall-writing style and took up
breakdancing, his second love.
He became â€œSpelâ€ after spotting TV producer Aaron
Spellingâ€™s name in his little sisterâ€™s Smurfs book, and
shortening the name.
After the family moved back to Phillyâ€”briefly to the old
neighborhood and then south to Seventh and Ritnerâ€”he and his
circle of wall-writers, particularly Delta, would go to New
York and hook up with a writer named Baby Rock. There theyâ€™d
â€œget upâ€â€”write graffiti, mostly on subway trains.
In Philly Cortes targeted walls adjacent to rooftops
visible from the El, and anything else that invited a fresh
â€œWe were on a mission,â€ he says. â€œGraffiti wasnâ€™t just a
hobby to us. It was our whole life. It was our way of saying
He doesnâ€™t contradict Goldenâ€™s memory of their first
meeting, but says he never harbored ill feelings.
â€œI tried very hard to avoid her, actually,â€ he says,
grinning. â€œShe was anti. We were pro. It was oil and water. It
He also tried to steer clear of undercover SEPTA cops whoâ€™d
snoop around El stops where graffiti writers congregated. The
cat-and-mouse game made for amusing scenes.
â€œWe used to call two of them Batman and Robin,â€ he says.
â€œSometimes theyâ€™d approach us and say, â€˜Iâ€™ll bet youâ€™re Met,
youâ€™re Teaz, youâ€™re Spel and youâ€™re Faid.â€™ They never had it
|School of hard knocks:
Having served time herself, Angela Crafton is well
equipped to teach mural painting to juvenile
But not everything was funny.
Lured by the fast money he could make peddling coke, Spel
was arrested at Eighth and Butler when he was 16.
â€œIt rattled me,â€ he says. â€œBut it didnâ€™t rattle me
Several adult busts for drug possession followed his 18th
Still, he graduated from South Philadelphia High School at
20 (heâ€™d missed time after dropping out of Olney High) and
started a business spray-painting abstracts on T-shirts, denim
jackets and other kinds of clothing. He was making money, but
was using too.
On the day Martin Brill was murdered, he says he was
getting high at Colonâ€™s house near Seventh and Tioga. At one
point, he says, Colon went out alone.
Citing legal concerns, he declines to delve into the
specifics, but insists thereâ€™s proof the statements
implicating him in the murder were fabricated.
â€œI wasnâ€™t at the scene,â€ he says.
But his protestations of innocence have so far fallen on
deaf ears, so he serves his time and paints feverishly in his
6-by-12-foot cell, mostly late at night.
â€œItâ€™s my studio and my sanctuary,â€ he says.
His day starts at 6 a.m., when a guard on D-Block gives the
wake-up call through a bullhorn. Breakfast is at 6:45, and by
7:30 heâ€™s in the auditorium working on murals. Thereâ€™s lunch
at 11, count at noon, more mural painting from 1 to 3, count
at 4, dinner at 6, free time from 6 to 8:45 and lockdown at 9.
â€œThings you take for granted, I can no longer do,â€ he says.
â€œIâ€™d love to have a window, just a window to open and suck in
some fresh air.â€
The mural program, which includes regular evening arts
sessions like Scott Feiferâ€™s writing workshop, lends some
â€œThe opportunity to provide the community with service, and
the gratification of being a productive citizen from up here
is wonderful,â€ Spel says.
Though virtually everyone at Graterford calls him Spel,
heâ€™s officially classified as Nicholas DeMatteo, an alias he
gave himself when he was arrested in his teens.
â€œItâ€™s the name of some kid I went to school with,â€ he
shrugs, adding he doesnâ€™t sweat the inaccuracy.
Bernice Horn remembers the creations Spel came up
with in her South Philly High art class whenever sheâ€™d assign
a simple still life.
â€œThey were pretty amazing,â€ says Horn, whoâ€™s now retired.
â€œThey were among the best in the classâ€”more than you asked
On this evening Horn, who renews an Art News
magazine subscription for Spel every year, is perusing 40 of
his multimedia paintings inside the Main Line Unitarian Church
in Devon. Itâ€™s Spelâ€™s first solo show, and itâ€™s running
through Oct. 27. His mother and a group of supporters
including art enthusiast Patt Freda, whose collection includes
a dozen or so of Spelâ€™s works, put the show together.
â€œBeing incarcerated, I donâ€™t know how he keeps his spirit,â€
Freda says. â€œA lot of his paintings reflect his situation. But
he stays positive, against all odds, really.â€
Golden is sick with a lupus flare-up, and canâ€™t be here
tonight, but the 25 or so suburbanites whoâ€™ve shown up seem
engrossed by paintings that â€œsmoothly switch-hit between
abstraction and representation â€¦ in the colors and feelings of
daylight,â€ according to Inquirer art critic Victoria
Robin Rice, a longtime Philadelphia art critic, has waxed
similarly enthusiastic about Spelâ€™s work over the years. â€œHe
integrates language with abstraction and imagery in a really
cutting-edge way that goes back to Basquiat,â€ she says.
Lillian Torres beams as several attendees tell her how
taken they are with her sonâ€™s work.
â€œIt makes me very proud,â€ she says.
A few weeks later a visitor to Graterford asks Spel about
several of the showâ€™s paintings bearing Spanish-language
titles, such as El Soldado de Efesios, Ensaname
Como and Fuera de Aqui, and the one whose English
title Out Goes the Refil seems to include a
â€œItâ€™s not a misspelling,â€ Cortes says. â€œYou have to spell
Frank Rubino last wrote about a North Philadelphia
womanâ€™s long battle to demolish the abandoned homes attached
to hers. Comments on this story can be sent to email@example.com
Jane Golden Reading and signing of More Philadelphia
Murals and the Stories They TellSun., Oct. 22, 1pm. Free.
Barnes & Noble, 1805 Walnut St. 215.665.0716