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Oct 3, 201410:00 AMCulture

Fun and Culture in the Mid-State

Street Art in Harrisburg

Oct 3, 2014 - 10:00 AM
Street Art in Harrisburg

Shake the can, press the nozzle and begin creating one of the most controversial forms of expression that paint has to offer. The artistic value of graffiti (or lack of) has been debated since the 1960s when it began thriving on the streets of Philadelphia.

While the amount of graffiti is difficult to quantify because of its impermanence, without a doubt it has integrated itself into urban culture. These illegal illustrations take the form of writing/tagging, and pieces range from small characters to large, full-color murals. It has also found its way into programs that make surfaces for legal graffiti.


Legal Graffiti

            Through the gate and past the jungle gym of the playground at Kelker and Third streets stands a 6-by-16-foot designated graffiti zone called the Peace Wall. Anyone is invited to pick up a can of paint and spray.

            Four years ago, Bob Welsh of Jump Street, a nonprofit community arts organization, formed the idea to mesh old school graffiti with digital technology. Artist Denni Boger, Welsh and a group of Harrisburg High School students worked together to install the first permanent Peace Wall.

            “It’s a place for people to really get out their frustration or joy or anger in a productive way,” says Welsh.

            To keep the Peace Wall peaceful, the students came up with a list of rules. No gang signs, weapons, profanity, racial slurs or sexual content is allowed. If anything of that nature appears, it will be buffed at once.

            What happens when the walls are covered? It disappears, at least physically. Members of Jump Street will take photographs of the wall when it’s filled to the max and store them at peacewall.net. The wall is then whitewashed for the next artist, and the next, and the next.

            Its counterpart is situated near Atlas and Fourth streets and was built by Green Urban Initiative, a program for community gardens. “It’s a huge blank,” says Ellen Crist, GUI garden coordinator. “I keep telling people, ‘Do it. Go paint!’”

            Rather than fighting graffiti, Welsh embraces it. The walls offer an outlet for those who want to create and express but who do not have the means. He and the others at Jump Street hope that the Peace Walls will deter graffiti writers from vandalizing private and public property.

            Jump Street’s program also includes Peace Walls on the go. These portable walls have appeared at charity events, educational programs and arts festivals throughout Harrisburg over the past four years.

            Currently, $6,000 to $8,000 stand in the way of future services from the portables. Members of Jump Street plan to raise the needed money to repair the van for continued transportation.

Street Art

            “I think when doing a piece outdoors, like when you walk away from it, I feel like it doesn’t really belong to you anymore,” says SR-81, a street artist who uses stencils to spice up Harrisburg.

            One of his works, a smiling woman colorfully spray-painted on a steel box, gazes across Walnut Street Bridge from City Island. He begins planning out pieces by selecting either from one of the photographs he has taken or from portraiture found online. He will then break them down into various layers and shades of color to cut into stencils.

            When determining the perfect place for his piece, the environment plays as much a part of the graffiti as the stencils and spray cans do. Rundown structures have imperfections, which tell stories with cracks, rust and broken glass. Boarded-up windows and urban machinery give SR-81’s vibrant creations a sense of juxtaposition.

            “I just like the contrast of putting it on an abandoned building or dilapidated building,” he says. “Whether you like my style or not, that ugly green box that probably no one will ever notice, now, you know, it kind of brings attention to it.”

            Despite the illegal nature of graffiti, he prefers to paint in the middle of a busy day. People will approach him and strike up conversations about his work. As he put up the piece by the bridge, for example, an older woman complimented his work and said, “It looks good, sir.”

            “Like, sir? It just caught me off guard because I’m there without permission,” SR-81 says. “You know, ‘cause being a street artist, graffiti artist – however you want to put it – you don’t really feel like people would have that type of respect.”

            The final stage of each piece is out of his control. Part of the charm to SR-81’s art is what happens after he chucks the empty aerosol cans and leaves his work to the elements. Sometimes other graffiti artists tag over his work, sometimes they are weathered by storms and sometimes they are wiped from existence.

            “I don’t think that artists should necessarily get offended by that,” he says. “It motivates me more to do other pieces. I like how…the piece is always changing, which includes not being there anymore.”

            These transient pieces of art also exist on a power box located at Verbeke and Second streets. Another rests on a door next to Taco Solo on Second Street. SR-81 has plans to spread his art across the streets of other cities and in other parts of the world.

            “It definitely is an adrenaline rush,” he says. “After you’re done putting the piece up, it kind of wears off. You know you want that feeling again.”


            “I was kind of like a street kid,” says a local retired graffiti writer. “I lived in Harrisburg. That’s what my friends did and probably what their older brothers did."

            He grew up dousing the city and nearby train yards with his tag name, SPRM. Many of his peers enjoyed the thrill of marking up the city in the ’80s. At times, he belonged to a crew and tagged with them. Competitiveness is common among crew members as to whom is the boldest, most skilled writer in the area.

            “At first, we were being really cautious about it, and we would only go out at night,” he says. “After a while, we got really ballsy about it, and we would go out during the day.”

            The quantity of graffiti was important to him for gaining rep, but he also focused on crafting his skill for better quality work. He was impressed by the potential creativeness in graffiti he discovered when visiting major cities such as Philadelphia and New York City.

            His style developed into a combination of bubble letters and wildstyle. The multi-colored letters intricately interlocked with each other. Shading added a three-dimensional effect that completed the job. Graffiti was the way for him to create art that he, as well as many of his peers, otherwise could not attain.

            “I didn’t have a lot of money, and my parents didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “They weren’t going to go out and get me oil paints or acrylic sets and all that. I could go down to the hardware store and pay two bucks to get a can of spray paint and go wild with it.”

            Writers had their risks, and SPRM was not always lucky. He and a friend were putting up graffiti in a train yard when a group of people walked over and began to hassle them.

            “We knew who they were, but they were sill acting like assholes,” SPRM says. “So they wanted to be all up on us, and we were trying to be stealth, you know? And these weren’t just tags we were doing. We were actually doing throwup pieces.”

            He adds, “We were like, ‘OK, here’s some paint. Go somewhere else.’”

            The group took off and proceeded to “bomb“ downtown with unseemly graffiti. Police were able to catch them based off of the gang names that they used to tag with, SPRM says.

            “They sprayed a line over everybody’s house and their cars and their flowers, like a straight line,” SPRM says. “Then they got to a church and put all this satanic shit on it.”

            SPRM ended up going to jail for nearly a month after they dropped his name for a lesser sentence, he says. As he grew older, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. He withdrew from the world of graffiti roughly eight years ago. Time and heightened efforts by city officials to whitewash graffiti have erased all of SPRM’s work.

            Well, almost all.

            “You won’t believe this,” he sent in a text message, “but I’m at a light in town, and there’s a train going by and I just saw one of my old ones…”

            After realizing what he saw, he struggled to get his phone out for a picture, but it was too late. As he watched his tag name float down the tracks, he was pleased to know that at least some of his graffiti still exists. Viewers beware, graffiti could last for years, or it could be gone by tomorrow.


Graffiti Terms


All City: When the writer has graffiti throughout a city.


Battle: Two or more crews compete against each other in style and/or quantity of graffiti. Often a third-party crew would determine the winner.


Bite: To steal from another writer’s work, or graffiti plagiarism.


Blockbuster: Thick, square lettering, tilted back and forth, and usually comes in two colors. It originated to easily cover a larger surface space.


Bomb: To cover many surfaces in a certain area. Bombers prefer throwups or tags to graffiti more quickly.


Bubble Letters: Large, rounded, balloon-like letters.


Buff: To remove graffiti either by chemicals or painting over it.


Burner: Larger, elaborate pieces with lots of detail.


Cap: An aerosol paint can nozzle. They come in different shapes for various effects.


Character: A cartoon figure that sometimes replaces letters in words. They are often taken from comics, TV, movies and other pop culture. Used for humor and to make pieces stand out.


Crew: A group of writers who graffiti together and tag under the same crew name. Crews are not necessarily gang-related.


Diss: To insult either verbally or by marking over another’s graffiti.


Drips: When paint drips down from the aerosol paint can. It is often seen as a newbie mistake but can also be done for effect.

Heaven Spot: Difficult-to-reach places where writers can sometimes gain fame from putting up graffiti in that area.


Hit up: To hit up something is to graffiti it.


King: A writer that is generally known and respected in the graffiti world.


Krylon: Cheap brand of spray paint.


Layup: Tracks where train or subways rest. This is where writers will graffiti them when they are not in motion.


Markers: Used for detail in graffiti.


Massacre: When city officials take down massive amounts of graffiti.


Mural: A large graffiti piece that is usually a collaborative effort.


One-liner: A tag written in a single, swift motion.


Pasteup: A sketch or painting on paper applied to a surface using wheat paste or wallpaper paste.


Piece: Short for masterpiece, it is graffiti that typically takes skill and time to create.


Racking: Stealing supplies. Items such as paint cans, markers, caps, etc. can be racked.


Rep: Repping for a crew would mean attaining respect, or reputation, for that crew via graffiti.


Roll Call: When everyone in the crew or everyone who helped to create a piece tags their name next to it.


Roller: Large piece done with paint rollers rather than aerosol cans.


Run: The amount of time graffiti stays up.


Rust-Oleum: Called Rusto for short, it is another brand of spray paint.


Scribe: A destructive type of graffiti that involves scratching or etching.


Sticker: A quick and efficient way to tag. These labels have the writer’s tag or character on it. They come from shipping companies or greeting name stickers with “Hello my name is ______” on it.


Tag: The graffiti artist’s signature. Their tag names can be put next to a piece or they can stand alone. They are normally simple and done in one color.


Throwups: Graffiti that is more complex than tags. They are done in more than one color, often with an outline and a fill color. They can vary in style but are typically done quicker than pieces.


Top To Bottom: Pieces that cover the entire height of the car on a train.


Toy: Describes poor quality of work. Also means someone who is inexperienced or amateurish.


Whole Car: Graffiti that covers all of the visible surfaces of a car.


Wildstyle: An intricate and complex style of graffiti, the intertwined letters make it difficult to read.


Writer: One who creates graffiti.

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