The support columns at the Philadelphia Graffiti Pier on the Delaware River.

Philadelphia Graffiti Pier: A Love Letter to the City’s Underground Arts

If you can’t find the entrance to Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier at first glance, that’s on purpose. The abandoned Conrail pier, originally used as a coal loading dock until the late 70’s, hides behind jersey barriers and a fence that opens only during daylight hours.

Beyond the semi-hidden entrance stands crumbling concrete walls, marked by spray-painted political statements, messages of hope, and even memorials to those who have passed.

A History of Philadelphia Graffiti

While many assume that the modern art of graffiti hails from the streets of New York or London, street art actually began right here in Philadelphia with Darryl McCray, known by his tag, “Cornbread.” In 1967, Cornbread popularized the idea of “getting up,” or gaining notoriety, through the language of graffiti.

Tribute to Edgar Allan Poe at the Philly graffiti pier
Tribute to local boy Edgar Allan Poe

You can find graffiti in almost any city, but Philly distinguishes itself by not only being the first, but also by maintaining a unique style that remains extremely difficult to duplicate and even harder to read if you are not accustomed to the style of writing.

This style is referred to as “wickeds.” To the untrained eye, a wicked looks like scribbles on a wall. And once you find out more about the exclusive nature of the Philadelphia graffiti world, you come to realize that this is intentional. Put simply, if you know, you know and if you don’t, you better learn.

Graffiti on concrete columns

Wickeds, however, make up a small portion of Graffiti Pier’s walls. The constantly updated urban gallery consists mostly of throws, the most common graffiti style that looks like thickly outlined bubble letters, and pieces, a graffiti style that depends more heavily on images than lettering or hand styles.

Pieces can be a lot easier for the novice graffiti viewer to digest, but the skill and artistry of wickeds and throws should not be overlooked.

A woman tagging at Philly's graffiti pier.
Woman tagging near wickeds and throws

With such a rich history, the future of the Delaware River waterfront property has many locals nervous but hopeful. The DRWC, the group behind successful revamps like Spruce Street Harbor Park and Cherry Street Pier, have already spent about a year surveying Port Richmond and Fishtown residents on their ideas for the property.

Recent Changes on the Pier

While the site has been a free-for-all for street artists since the early 90’s, the Philadelphia Police Department began cracking down on trespassers in the spring of 2018 following rising reports of crime at this location. 

View of the Philadelphia skyline and the Delaware River.
View of downtown from the pier

This news came not to deter tourists and Philly residents alike from reading the story that layers of neon spray paint have created over the years, but rather to collaborate with the DRWC (Delaware River Waterfront Corporation) to provide a safer environment for visitors that simultaneously respects the historical nature of the space. Currently, the pier is allowing visitors again but only during daylight hours.

What we know so far about the future of the pier’s renovation project is that Studio Zewde, a Black-owned design firm, is in charge and they are aiming to change as little as possible about the local landmark. They strive to provide more safety measures and allow greater waterfront access for visitors.

Tags on support columns at the pier
Tags on the support columns

Beyond that, it is not 100% certain what changes will go into effect over the next few years, but the people have a say in the matter. To make your thoughts heard, you can visit the project’s website.

Visiting Graffiti Pier

Octopus mural

Ready to plan your visit? You can find this urban art gallery at the intersection of E. Cumberland Street and Beach Street.  There is ample parking along the two streets. Word to the wise, stick to the trails or stock up on calamine lotion—there’s poison ivy throughout the site.

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