From the first time I started doing these graffiti interviews a few weeks ago, those who follow and participate in the Philadelphia graffiti scene told me to interview DERM. As a fan of the scene myself, I was also very excited at the possibility to both meet and interview him. His pieces are simply incredible, and his talent as a versatile and well-rounded graffiti writer in our city has earned him an excellent reputation. Many people, both writers and non-writers suggested that I interview DERM due to his sheer visibility and talent. In addition to being one of Philly’s best, he is also an incredibly generous, helpful, and fascinating person with lots of great things to say about the city and the experiences one has while living here. I am honored to present to you, my interview with a legend: DERM.
Chris: How long have you been writing graff?
DERM: I don’t know how long its been. I started around 1983, maybe a little before that. My first run was until 1987, and a little here and there afterwards. My second campaign started in 2004, and I’ve been going since then. I’ve been going way harder in the second campaign.
Chris: How did you get started writing graff?
DERM: I was always into art and artistic stuff. I grew up near two train lines in Manayunk, and was always down on the tracks seeing graffiti. The first person I saw on the tracks was ZIGGY. I always liked writing my name anyway, and seeing ZIGGY made me aware of graffiti. Plus, around that same time I was seeing ZIGGY i started breakdancing. So I’d be down on the tracks and breakdancing when I started meeting graff dudes. Meanwhile, some of the breakdancing guys were really into graff. So all these things going on at once was what got me into graff.
Chris: Who are some writers that you admire and respect? Any shoutouts to give?
DERM: There are a lot to list. LM,OMNE, BAM, BARD i2i, IXU, BRAZE, PRAEZ, WERK, SOBAD, DAVE-I-, JK, GOOSE, all of the ICP, WAB, and IYA crews…GOLDY, KAIR, OZ, ,OZO, BUM, CRESE, MET, SEAP,ENC, GAGE, ENEM, RASAN, RASAD, GEEZ, EXAM, P.I.V., BOLD ART, TKU, and KIW, MIC, KMD, ATP, R.I.P.RAZZ and all writers,past and present! Also, shouts to AVIATE and FRAMES ,KOOL-ADE, wifey TERI, and my MOM!
Chris: What is your best experience and your worst experience you’ve had since getting involved with graffiti?
DERM: My best experience was during my beginning years when I was going around photographing graff. I was 12-13 years-old, and my mom and I were driving on the Schuylkill Expressway before 30th Street Station… and we saw the “wall of fame” near the art museum: MR. BLINT, ESTRO, CLYDE, PEP, PIZAZZ, RAZZ, DEADHEAD, and a couple others were up there. I made my mom pull over on the side of the highway, nearly giving her a heart attack. I jump out of the car, hop over the wall and I was like, “WOW! HOLY SHIT!!” At this moment, I knew that’s what i wanted/had to do..then started taking pictures. They were all so beautiful and so big. I was like, “Holy shit, this is amazing!!” Seeing all those pieces up-close and face-to-face was really significant to me.
My worst experience came when OZ wanted to take pictures of some stuff him and some guys did the night before. So we’re riding down 5th Street taking pictures. At one point, I’m standing on the corner while OZ is taking pictures and I’m looking at some marker tags. I reach in my pocket and notice I have a fresh marker. I see some cops down the street that were busy with something else, so I pull out my marker and start doing my tag. I see this car driving by, but didn’t really think anything of it. The guy goes around the block and parks behind the cop car. It turns out it was an undercover cop!
The cop walks over to me and motions for me to give him the marker. He then asks OZ what he is doing. OZ tells him he is taking pictures for a magazine, and the cop starts looking through OZ’s camera. Suddenly, cop says, “Wait a minute…don’t I know you two,” then he suddenly calls over to his partner, “Yo Jimmy, it’s OZ and DERM! These guys are everywhere!” They started messing with us after that. I guess it was a bad experience in that it was no longer anonymous for us anymore. It was a crushing blow. It was like we were in the mafia and the cops had just made us. It wasn’t what we wanted.
Chris: Do you think graff and graffiti writers in general are misunderstood?
DERM: Oh yeah for sure, definitely. I don’t think it gets talked about how the use of spray-paint by graffiti writers is so awesome. To be able to do such amazing things with only a can of spray-paint is really a challenge. The Anti-Graffiti Network/Mural Arts Program refuses to ever use spray-paint for anything. Anywhere else but outdoors spray-paint is kind of overkill. But, as an artist, the spray-paint can is instant and you can use it for so many things.
Chris: What’s the craziest experience you’ve ever had while writing?
DERM: There are a couple crazy stories. I had some odd sexual offerings, stuff like that. Here’s a good one. This one time me and WERK were off of Vine Street in an alley near Roman Catholic High School working on an abandoned building. As we were doing our thing, I notice a guy walking down the street. The guy walks over to us and says, “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt., but I wanted to ask if either of you wanted a blow job.” I say, “No man, I’m good! Just trying to get our paint on!” While walking away, he starts saying all this horrible and derogatory stuff. Mind you, WERK never turned his head from the wall. He then turns to me, wide eyed,and pale-faced, and says, “Oh my god, that was the worst thing that ever happened in my life.”
Chris: Do you have a favorite style of graffiti to do, and is there a particular piece you have done that you are especially fond of?
DERM: That’s a tough question because my answer would change depending on when you talk to me. Right now, I’m into real big views you can see from a distance…pieces you can see from a highway.
One piece that came off best for me was one I did on the Lincoln Drive/Ridge Avenue exit of I-76 (pictured below). My buddy GAGE called it a Farrah Fawcett/Charlie’s Angels style because of how it looked. It was the first time I did something like this, and it came out great in one shot. I was so happy with it. It wasn’t just a piece of artwork for me. Everything worked out perfectly. The colors. The cans I chose. Everything. It was perfect.
Chris: What’s it like when you hit a rooftop?
DERM: My first couple of rooftops were down in Center City. It’s like a Broadway show. You’re up high and above everything else. It’s the best. You see this spot that you figured out, you manage to find a way to get up there. Once you’re get up to the spot, there’s all this activity going on below: cars, people, you get the idea. You see them, but they don’t see you. You get all this energy from the lights and the sounds around you. It’s a beautiful thing really. You’re almost like Spiderman in a sense. Then, you come back down and you get to see your name, and it’s just a great feeling. Every time you take a ride by you get to see your name again and it’s an awesome feeling of adrenaline all over again.
Chris: What goes through your mind after discovering something of yours was buffed?
DERM: Most of the time it’s like, “Damn, that stinks.” Like, you feel like you lost your lines or your ranks in a war. You lost some soldiers. Sometimes you expect it to happen. Other times you’re pissed off. It’s more than likely that if you do your homework and think outside the box, you can beat the buff and last a long time. But after you lose some soldiers, you just put more guys up there to defend those pieces of land that were conquered by the buff.
Chris: What role does graff play in your everyday life?
DERM: Lately it is a big source of happiness. It’s a stress reliever and an accomplishment. Sometimes it adds negativity. The main role it plays in my life is a feeling of being proud of something. Mainly, it’s the good stuff that plays into my life, and not the negative stuff.
I’d like to take the opportunity to personally thank DERM for taking the time to participate in this interview with me, to be so willing to share his experiences, and to also be such a genuinely good person to converse with. It was a pleasure getting to talk to him, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
I’d also like to give thanks to OZ, BAM, and KEECH for helping make this interview happen, and for being so generous with their thoughts and opinions as well.
Be sure to check out our other interviews with some of Philly’s best graff writers:
For more work from DERM, please visit our friends at 215graff.com.