Sep 12

Artist Interview: Rocco Albano reveals behind-the-scenes stories of Mural Arts' roots

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Rocco Albano was a part of Mural Arts’ history: as a graffiti writer himself, he was an early participant in the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, Mural Arts’ first incarnation. Rocco shares his artistic journey, the program’s influence on his life’s path, and some insider anecdotes about a young and determined Jane Golden.

Carly: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Rocco: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I’ve had the chance to live in all parts of the city, though now I live just outside of it with my family. I grew up in West Philadelphia in a racially torn, drug infested, crime ridden neighborhood. You had limited options coming up as a kid. I didn’t want to be stuck in the neighborhood, because being stuck was clearly a dead end.

At a very young age, my mom introduced me to figures such as Jacques Cousteau the pioneering oceanographer and magicians like Harry Houdini the escape artist, opening my eyes to the wider world. At one point I became obsessed with Houdini and his ability to escape any type of physical constraints. Looking back I now realize I was truly fascinated by his ability to create an alter-ego to his real identity as a kid named Erich Weiss. Houdini had been able to transcend his poverty stricken childhood and gain fame well beyond the small Midwestern town he grew up in. I fell in love with the idea of escaping my surroundings.

Carly: How did you first get interested in art and graffiti?

Rocco: My parents had an acrimonious divorce when I was barely 5 years old. I didn’t realize it then, but alcoholism, domestic violence, and abusive behavior had shaped my family on both sides, for generations and was the foundation my neighborhood was built on. I started my graffiti career and simultaneously an addiction to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and high risk behaviors at the age of 13. Graffiti was initially an unconscious attempt to lash out at my family and the system. I was very angry at the divorce and other significant abuse I had sustained, but had no one I could trust and share what had happened to me with or express my emotions in a non-shaming environment. There were no safe outlets in the public school system to turn to and the rise of Just Say No To Drugs was being implemented by the Reagan administration. Addiction of any kind was still seen as a “moral” and human weakness  – a lack of self will.

Graffiti was an attempt to really find myself and come up with an identity other than who I was, because I didn’t want to be who I was. A neighborhood friend introduced me to this concept of graffiti, hey I have a magic marker here, I’m gonna write my name on this bathroom stall at school and everyone is going to see it. I chose the name PEZ on the spot because I grew up eating Pez candy and did my first tag – it was as simple as that.

Graffiti was an attempt to really find myself and come up with an identity other than who I was, because I didn’t want to be who I was.

- Rocco Albano

I started like many other graffiti writers started, with spray paint. There were plenty of abandoned buildings right in my neighborhood. We went to this one in particular that fronted 63rd and Market street and would practice on these acres of blank cinder block walls. One day we climbed the roof of the factory and there was a huge top-to-bottom DISCO DUCK tag. DUCK had made his presence known on that rooftop, he had claimed that wall and in my mind everyone riding the EL would see it. DUCK was a legendary Philadelphia writer at the time. That’s where the power of graffiti really started to click for me. It was about ownership of the system through destroying it. It was about getting a reputation or “rep” as we called it amongst my peers in the city-wide graffiti culture. It got me attention from the kids and young men in the neighborhood and far beyond and I really needed and craved that. One thing led to another and because I have this very curious nature, I didn’t want to be confined only to writing graffiti in my neighborhood in West Philadelphia. We took the Market-Frankford line every day, riding from end to end, looking at all the new graffiti that had appeared on the rooftops. This is where I really started to see that there was an artistic side to graffiti. These big, full color, multi-letter pieces with characters, all types of fill-in styles, that adorned all of the major rooftops across the city.

I did a tremendous amount of graffiti writing between 1980 to 1986. In 1984, Mayor Wilson Goode started a program called the Anti-Graffiti Network. I was running with MB, who was the most notorious, legendary, and talented graffiti artist in Philadelphia at the time, and we heard there was going to be this amnesty day for wall writers. A whole bunch of us, probably 300-400, converged on City Hall and, in retrospect it’s interesting, because what we were getting was attention from the system we had set out to destroy. We were getting attention from the authorities who held nothing but contempt for us. We had caused so much damage that the City of Philadelphia had to form some type of graffiti abatement program in an attempt to control a situation that was way-out-of-control.

There’s a well known photo of MB, SUROC (the kid who got me started writing on walls), me, and a bunch of other wall writers posing for the press moments after we had pledged to the Mayor and citizens of Philadelphia at amnesty day, that we would no longer write on walls. There were all these photographers following us around, and reporters vying to interview us, and we thought, wow we’re famous, right? Less than twenty minutes after this event was over, the press was gone, and we were ushered out of City Hall, and most of us were already tagging again as we scattered to all points of the city.

Carly: So with such an aversion to this new program, how did you eventually get involved with the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network?

Rocco: At the time, I was hardcore into my drug addiction and alcoholism, and I was writing on walls all the time. I was a high school drop out. My mom had gotten me a job at McDonalds–I was a cashier and I didn’t like that at all, and I quit. One night I was out and came across the Spring Garden Street Bridge and I’d been walking a route, which means following a bus route and tagging as many walls along the way as possible. At the end-cap of the bridge I saw the Philadelphia Anti Graffiti Network symbol and the signatures of the artists who had painted the mural that ran the length of the bridge. I ex’d out the Anti logo and proceeded to tag the mural 5 or 6 times.

A couple of days later I went to see my tags on the mural. Then I crossed the bridge and walked a few blocks further down Callowhill Street and I saw a crew of people painting a mural and TRAN, a graffiti writer that I knew, up on the scaffolding doing some brushwork. But before I could go connect with him, this woman in paint-splattered overalls, who I thought was just out of her mind, comes off the scaffolding, and she’s got this bucket of green paint, and she starts yelling at me: “I know who you are! I know you’re PEZ and I know you wrote on my mural. I could have you arrested!”

Carly: And is that how you met Jane Golden?

Rocco: And that is how I met Jane Golden! I wanted nothing to do with her, I wanted out of there! She was livid with me. I got away from this woman, and thought, oh that was close! There was a cop across the street, and she could have had me arrested.

Later in the year, I was walking down Broad Street, heading to meet up with some writers. It was very cold outside. At the corner of Broad and Lombard street I saw this huge five story tall scaffolding and Jane was up there with some writers I knew.  I stayed at the edge of the parking lot, thinking that there was no way I was going near her. She came down from the scaffolding, and I thought she was going to threaten me again. But at that moment, out of the blue I apologized for writing on her mural. It had dawned on me, that I didn’t like it when someone ex’d out my work and she hadn’t had me arrested. We talked for a minute or two, and then she offered me the chance to come up on the scaffold and paint. And I thought–out here, now, in broad daylight?

But I got up on the scaffold and started filling in an area that she pointed to. It was the first time I’d ever used a brush to paint anything. She gave me a little bit of coaching, and then told me that if I came back every day for 30 days, she would see if she could get me a job.

Carly: Wow, what a way to meet Jane!

Rocco: Definitely! The Philadelphia Anti Graffiti Network had been funded to try and eradicate graffiti, to try and get hardcore kids to change their behavior through threats of arrest and cleaning up graffiti. The difference in Jane’s approach was that she didn’t come off as judgmental, saying we’re “bad” and have to be fixed. Jane saw it as a trade-off: she was going to help us, but we were going to help her too. She was going to teach us, but we were going to help her connect with others. And I became part of her crew in 1986.

Carly: What sorts of things did you learn from Jane as a part of her crew?

Rocco: An enormous number of things. I began to learn about responsibility, the importance of showing up for a job, and how to connect with people in the communities that we were painting murals for. When we scoped out a wall for a mural, Jane instructed us to knock on neighbors’ doors, ask them what type of mural they were interested in, and most ironically she had us process the paperwork that gave us (the City of Philadelphia) permission to paint on the wall. Before, we never asked permission – that was the antithesis of what we would do. I worked with Jane and the crew for three and a half years, and it was a huge influence on my life and art. Slowly over the years, I started to feel like my life had meaning and purpose beyond graffiti writing, beyond an identity I had built to survive a very traumatic childhood.

Carly: In what way?

Rocco: What Jane did in the late 1980s was so important to my journey as an artist. She introduced me and others to fine artists and art museums in Philadelphia and NYC. Before I met Jane I had never stepped foot in an Art Museum. My museum was the Market-Frankford El line. Jane also brought in big name contemporary artists to speak with us and work with us. Jane opened up the world of art history to me – of Caravaggio, Wilhelm de Kooning, and Rubens. She helped me redirect my creative fury away from lashing out at a wall and apply it to a message that had meaning on canvas. Graffiti at its core, like any form of art, is a mode of expression, and Jane created an environment where we could express ourselves and also provide a service to communities throughout Philadelphia. My work that will be exhibited in the upcoming Roots & Wings show  encompasses my story, shows Jane’s influence on my creative healing journey, and shows how art can ignite change. There’s no one else out there like Jane Golden, she truly is original.

Carly: Thanks so much, Rocco, and I’m looking forward to seeing your show this fall!

Roots & Wings is on view at the Commonwealth Gallery from September 22 – December 15. Please join us on September 22 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for an opening reception.

Last updated: Sep 12, 2016

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