Photographs by Jeff Fusco. Artwork by Spel.
Hit the Wall

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.

by Frank Rubino

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.

“Write about what you love and know,” he urges the seven Graterford inmates in maroon jumpsuits and six teens sporting the green knit shirts of St. Gabriel’s Hall, a Montgomery County reformatory. “Write about your favorite food. It might take you someplace you don’t expect. Write about anything, write till your hand starts to hurt, but keep your heart close at hand.”

Ten minutes later he asks his proteges to read their work.

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 happy—money, girls’ 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 he’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 it’s Jane Golden’s turn to read. Golden is the turbocharged director of Philly’s celebrated Mural Arts Program, the won’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.

Golden’s back in the news now that her organization’s All Join Hands antiviolence mural covering one side of Ben Franklin High School is nearing dedication.

“I remember,” she begins, “the early days, going to El stops and asking graffiti writers whether they’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.”

It was near the end of the ’80s, and Golden—then in her early 30s—was standing across the street from a row house, accompanied by her assistant, notorious graffiti writer Anthony “Tran” Jones.

In her pocket she carried the Pledge, a sheet of paper bearing the inscription of the Anti-Graffiti Network.

Golden’s mission was to get Hernan “Spel” Cortes’ 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.

“Graffiti is bad. It’s ugly,” Goode announced late in ’83. “It mars this entire city. It keeps businesses away. It destroys neighborhoods.”

Still lifer: Spel (in a prison photo)
Born in 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 Network’s first boss, to hire her to run one of the Network’s programs.

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 seemed natural.

“I just thought, ‘Boy, I bet these guys would really like doing murals because they’re big, they’re outdoors. They’re natural wall hunters and they’re clearly not scared of heights.”

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. Spel’s name came up frequently.

“He’d show me Spel’s pieces,” Golden recalls. “The big colorful ones with scenic backgrounds—burners or New Yorkers, they called them—and I’d be like, ‘God, this guy’s so talented. Let’s recruit him.’ You see some graffiti, and even if it’s pretty good, you feel like you’ve seen a million like them. His stood out.”

As Golden navigated the city’s graffiti subculture, she heard Hardcore and Toy dropping fellow writer Spel’s name.

Jonathan Heard, a Graffiti Network employee for more than 20 years and a fabled ’70s wall writer in his own right (his “Johnski” tag was almost as recognizable as “Cornbread”), says Spel had serious cred.

“He had more of a New York style. He did big things with a lot of colors,” Heard says. “Cornbread and myself, we were basic black and silver, hit and split. He had a real nice hand.”

Another Mural Arts employee and ex-writer who gives his name only as “Smack” recalls a burner Spel did on a wall at South Philly’s Bok Vocational High School depicting a flamboyant character strutting along while wearing headphones, his face contorted in agony.

“He just threw it up,” Smack says. “Everything he did was nice.”

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.

“Some viewed me as law enforcement, and he was like that,” Golden says. “He wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t that friendly either. He was like, ‘She’s a cop. She’s from Anti.’” She laughs. “I found him arrogant, actually, but I found a lot of them arrogant. Being with Anti-Graffiti was like having a stamp on my forehead.”

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 Spel’s talent. There was, for example, Teddy “Knife” Harris, who joined at 15 to enhance his painting skills, then discovered poetry and cultivated a strong following.

“Some of them started producing their own work that was pretty sophisticated,” Golden says. “I introduced them to some fairly well-known artists and critics. I still wonder what might’ve happened with Spel if he’d joined.”

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 ’80s and early ’90s.

“It was one of the worst in the city,” says Rush, a former police officer and lieutenant who now serves as vice president for public safety at Penn. “Quite possibly the worst.”

Drivers were inundated by dealers offering blow—blue bag, red bag, yellow bag, clear bag.

“In the middle of the day,” Rush says. “They were so brazen.”

Most of the dealers, young though they were, understood the basic business principle—that satisfied customers return—so “gagging” (selling bogus product) was a no-no, as was robbing customers.

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 “Sasquatch” Colon, and charged him with robbing and murdering Brill. Three days after that, based on statements by Colon and a witness, they arrested Hernan “Spel” Cortes, and charged him identically.

Colon and Cortes were tried in January 1992, and found guilty of second-degree murder. Both received the mandatory sentence—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.

“They were telling me to keep up my enthusiasm,” she says. “They said if they’d had something like a mural arts program, they might not be here today.”

When a Department of Corrections art therapist asked if she’d consider creating a regular program at Graterford, her first thought was about the time it would take.

“But then I thought about the many neighborhoods where I meet moms who have a kid who’s dead and a kid who’s in jail,” she says, “so if we’re working with the whole community, shouldn’t we extend it to the prisons?”

Today some 30 Graterford inmates earn 51 cents an hour painting murals on parachute cloth as a full-time prison occupation.

Hernan “Spel” Cortes is one of them.

Golden didn’t know Spel was assigned to Graterford until after she’d agreed to launch a program there. Told one of the inmates knew her, she drew a blank.

“He goes, ‘Spel,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ It just broke my heart.”

On the first day of class Spel showed Golden abstract paintings he’d done on canvases with brushes. She was impressed.

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 victims’ journeys; the other portrays convict transformations.

Last year they created eight murals on parachute cloth—a lightweight, durable fabric that’s affixed to walls with acrylic gel—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 victims.

“There have to be consequences for violent offenders,” she says.

She pauses.

“But this doesn’t preclude rehabilitation or help. People should be offered opportunities to change, even if they never see the outside world again.”

Angela Crafton, once a junkie who supported heroin and cocaine addictions by “boosting” items from supermarkets and fencing them for cheap at mom-and-pop groceries, remembers being in the passenger seat of the car she’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 Northeast’s House of Correction. Lori Pompa, the director of Temple’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 “satellites” going up around the city. This one, which will grace a rec center wall at 58th and Chester, depicts a smiling man’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 he’s facing his second attempted-murder case. Another, who looks about the same age, allows only that he’s in for homicide. A third, who’s taller and more physically mature, says he’s 17 and will soon be eligible for parole.

Golden, in jeans and sneakers, asks them to take a seat.

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.

“It’s a serious offer,” 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 who’ll say only that he’s in for homicide says sending killers upstate for the rest of their lives isn’t helping.

Another kid points out there’d be fewer murders if people stopped selling drugs on each other’s turf.

“But do you have to kill a person for doing that?” Golden asks.

“Yeah,” he answers. “Yeah, you do.”

A third kid explains that sometimes feuding teens will declare their dispute has reached “on-sight” status. “That 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?”

On the ride back into the city Golden says she’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.

Golden touch: Jane's legendary efforts over the years have made Philly a famous mural mecca.
Spel Cortes remembers being ushered into a squad car two weeks after Brill’s murder, and trying to convince two homicide detectives they were making a mistake.

“I kept telling them they had the wrong guy,” 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.

He’s been wearing it for 14 years, and even his supporters wonder whether he’ll ever get to shed it. He’s lost three appeals.

But Cortes, who has a 19-year-old daughter, maintains an unwavering faith he’ll regain his freedom.

He says if he never gets out it would mean “everything I’m doing with my life is kind of pointless.”

Those who’ve seen the paintings he’s done might take issue with that.

His artwork, which tends toward the abstract, is attracting art connoisseurs the way his graffiti once attracted Golden.

“He’s a really, really strong painter,” Golden says. “If he were out in the world, there’s a good chance he’d be showing in New York.”

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, who’d demonstrated drawing prowess in his formative years, cultivated his trademark wall-writing style and took up breakdancing, his second love.

He became “Spel” after spotting TV producer Aaron Spelling’s name in his little sister’s Smurfs book, and shortening the name.

After the family moved back to Philly—briefly to the old neighborhood and then south to Seventh and Ritner—he and his circle of wall-writers, particularly Delta, would go to New York and hook up with a writer named Baby Rock. There they’d “get up”—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 hit.

“We were on a mission,” he says. “Graffiti wasn’t just a hobby to us. It was our whole life. It was our way of saying we existed.”

He doesn’t contradict Golden’s memory of their first meeting, but says he never harbored ill feelings.

“I tried very hard to avoid her, actually,” he says, grinning. “She was anti. We were pro. It was oil and water. It didn’t mix.”

He also tried to steer clear of undercover SEPTA cops who’d snoop around El stops where graffiti writers congregated. The cat-and-mouse game made for amusing scenes.

“We used to call two of them Batman and Robin,” he says. “Sometimes they’d approach us and say, ‘I’ll bet you’re Met, you’re Teaz, you’re Spel and you’re Faid.’ They never had it right.”

School of hard knocks: Having served time herself, Angela Crafton is well equipped to teach mural painting to juvenile inmates.

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.

“It rattled me,” he says. “But it didn’t rattle me enough.”

Several adult busts for drug possession followed his 18th birthday.

Still, he graduated from South Philadelphia High School at 20 (he’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 Colon’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 there’s proof the statements implicating him in the murder were fabricated.

“I wasn’t at the scene,” 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.

“It’s my studio and my sanctuary,” 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 he’s in the auditorium working on murals. There’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.

“Things you take for granted, I can no longer do,” he says. “I’d love to have a window, just a window to open and suck in some fresh air.”

The mural program, which includes regular evening arts sessions like Scott Feifer’s writing workshop, lends some brightness.

“The opportunity to provide the community with service, and the gratification of being a productive citizen from up here is wonderful,” Spel says.

Though virtually everyone at Graterford calls him Spel, he’s officially classified as Nicholas DeMatteo, an alias he gave himself when he was arrested in his teens.

“It’s the name of some kid I went to school with,” he shrugs, adding he doesn’t sweat the inaccuracy.

Bernice Horn remembers the creations Spel came up with in her South Philly High art class whenever she’d assign a simple still life.

“They were pretty amazing,” says Horn, who’s now retired. “They were among the best in the class—more than you asked for.”

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. It’s Spel’s first solo show, and it’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 Spel’s works, put the show together.

“Being incarcerated, I don’t know how he keeps his spirit,” Freda says. “A lot of his paintings reflect his situation. But he stays positive, against all odds, really.”

Golden is sick with a lupus flare-up, and can’t be here tonight, but the 25 or so suburbanites who’ve shown up seem engrossed by paintings that “smoothly switch-hit between abstraction and representation … in the colors and feelings of daylight,” according to Inquirer art critic Victoria Donohoe.

Robin Rice, a longtime Philadelphia art critic, has waxed similarly enthusiastic about Spel’s work over the years. “He integrates language with abstraction and imagery in a really cutting-edge way that goes back to Basquiat,” she says.

Lillian Torres beams as several attendees tell her how taken they are with her son’s work.

“It makes me very proud,” she says.

A few weeks later a visitor to Graterford asks Spel about several of the show’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 misspelling.

“It’s not a misspelling,” Cortes says. “You have to spell ‘refil’ backward.”

Frank Rubino last wrote about a North Philadelphia woman’s long battle to demolish the abandoned homes attached to hers. Comments on this story can be sent to

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

Additional articles by Frank Rubino:

Home Alone (Aug 30 '06)
Term for the Werts (Aug 02 '06)
Life Savers (Jul 19 '06)
"They Almost Killed Me in There" (May 24 '06)
Level-Headed (Apr 26 '06)

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