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This Little Thing of Ours: A Streets Dept Oral History with Shoba, Philadelphia Graffiti Writer

June 25, 2018

Post by Streets Dept Contributor, Phillip Reid, photos courtesy of Shoba

Welcome to the first interview of our Streets Dept Oral History Project, a new 20-week series created by Streets Dept’s first-ever intern, Phillip Reid. Over the course of this series we will be collecting and sharing the stories of a mix of 20 street artists, graffiti writers, muralists, and public arts leaders all working to shape and create the art in Philadelphia’s public spaces. Read more about this new temporary series in our announcement post here. Excited today to kick it all off with Philly’s own Shoba…

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Shoba met with Streets Dept at a mutual friend’s house in South Philly, the part of the city where the Philly-native writer grew up and first started developing his graffiti skill set. Shoba was a funny and easy-going interviewee, not taking himself too seriously but also thoughtfully elaborating on how he got started, what keeps him writing, and the role that graffiti culture has played in his personal life. In the interview he lays down some important lessons about what distinguishes graffiti from street art and muralism, and what graffiti means to the tight-knit group of writers who are keeping this storied art form alive in what many argue to be the city where it all started.

I was born in West Philly, but moved to South at a really young age. I didn’t really grow up like the other South Philly kids, per se. I think everything is a little tight-knit down here, and I didn’t really fit in too much with the crowd. So I kinda kept to myself, had just like one friend for the longest time in my youth, and I still know him to this day. We’re super good friends, since third grade.

So it started with stickers. This kid I met down the street from my house, he did a character, his name was “G-Rot”. And I saw one of his characters through this girl I liked back in middle school, which was like in 8th grade. I was like, “What is that?” And she told me what it was, she’s like, “Yeah, I’m datin’ this guy and he does these stickers.” I was like, “I wanna do that!” And then she introduced me to him and we clicked, he was a really cool dude and we became friends for a couple years. And then, y’know, I felt like I got tired of stickers and I wanted to do something more. So I started transitioning into writing. G-Rot’s neighbor was a writer, he doesn’t write anymore. He was a pretty relevant writer in South Philly at the time. I was like, “Show me some stuff,” y’know? And he kinda gave me some hands, when I was writing “Kaddy,” and I just kinda like stuck with that for a while. Then I told my boy in high school about it and we started practicing together. So we were just practicing a whole bunch in the books in high school, like lunch, gym, art class, always just scribblin’ in books. I have composition books at home, probably like ten or twelve from back in the day. Just keepin’ it for like my own personal history, y’know? Yeah, I mean that was the start of it.

I didn’t really have, like an OG, and that’s kinda of a thing in Philly, kinda gettin’ fathered into graffiti. So I took to social media a lot. Me and my friend we were always lookin’ at the writers that were pretty poppin’ during that time, like Karma—when she was still in Philly—Drama, Rasad, Bum—amongst many other writers, those were our main influences. We would literally copy their hands and books until we got ’em down right. And then over time we started developing our own styles, and I started meeting more and more people. And like to this day, any social event I go to I’m saying “hi” to like twenty people. I’m like, Wow, I didn’t realize I know so many people.

Being recognized is kind of a good thing and a bad thing, because I wanted to stay exclusive, more recently, and I feel like I’m not that exclusive—well, not exclusive, but just low-key. Just the mystery of not knowing who Shoba is. I show up at places and it’s like, “Ah yeah! I know Shoba!” And they might not know me that well, but like, “Yeah I know that guy!” And I don’t want everyone to be like that. I feel like I was trying to get rep and fame off graffiti, and now it’s just more of like a personal way of life. I write because it’s fun, I’ve made great relationships with some of my closest friends. And I like to keep it that way, y’know? Like I wanted to be “Instafamous,” I wanted to get thousands of likes on Instagram. And over time that idea died, in my head. I just want to paint with my friends, at the end of the day.

When I got serious about writing, I wanted to have a reason to write. Not just because it was something to do. I started writing Shoba because that’s my mother’s name. She passed away—damn—five years ago, now. I feel like writing her name keeps her with me, y’know? Anywhere in the city, I could be in the darkest, ugliest place in the city and I’ll have that comfort, that she’s spiritually there with me.

I was adopted, so there were times when we wouldn’t see each other for years. On her part she just wasn’t the best at reaching out to me. She had her own problems, y’know? She had drug issues and what not. We had a pretty good relationship, not as good as I would’ve liked it to be. Now that I’m older and I understand how the world works, for the most part *Laughs* I woulda liked to know who she really was as a—not as my mom, but just as a person overall, y’know?

“I’m sure there’s plenty of people who see it that probably don’t even care. They just look at it and think nothing of it. Which is kinda cool, y’know? I’m like kinda creepin’ in the back of your mind sometimes, and you have no idea what it’s about.”

You definitely take a liking to certain graffiti. Everyone’s got different tastes, but I’ve always been the, uh—I like logos and very iconic stuff, y’know? Try to get my graffiti as “graphic design” as possible. Y’know? Dude, Drama is like my number one guy. He’s so uniform and so crispy clean, and that’s like what I’m about now, y’know? Definitely like to show off the clean lines, he’s one of my favorites. There’s this guy, he writes “Gary”. Dude, his graffiti is super clean. You would think that it’s printed, like it’s a big sticker on a wall. He’s just someone I discovered on the internet, in the past years. Definitely always stuck in the back of my head, as an influence. I’ve always had this mindset that everything I do should be perfect. Naturally, I am a very vain person. I care very much about my appearance. That is definitely reflected in my work. Although I’ll never be a perfect person, I can at least try to achieve that through my graffiti *Laughs*.

Abandoned buildings are definitely the number one place to go if you want things to last. But the only issue with that is that I’m so late to the scene that every ‘bando is completely filled with graffiti from years prior. Also, me and Colorz (another writer who was present at the interview), we go for rooftops. The only way that’s gettin’ buffed is if someone requests that, y’know they call the 311 hotline. And then eventually somebody’ll get out there with a forklift and go paint the graffiti, but, I guess to the natural eye, it like—people just don’t even see it. But if you have an eye for graffiti, or street art in general, you’re gonna pick up those things. And that’s what I go for.

Dude. Don’t hit people’s houses, don’t hit cars. If it looks nice, if you’re in a nice area, just don’t—catch a white-out tag on a pole. Just don’t bring paint into places that paint shouldn’t be brought. A large portion of South Philly shouldn’t be painted, and when I see new cats comin’ up I find their Instagram and message ’em, like, “Dude, this was like a Mom ‘n Pop store. This lady’s been working here forever.” I don’t do that as much anymore, not as much as I did. A couple years ago I was more sociable and I wanted to meet everyone. I can think of this one kid. Right on 10th and Shunk there’s a corner store owned by this old Italian lady, for like as long as I’ve been alive, and they put a tag up on it. And I was like, “Dude, go to Broad Street if you’re gonna go tag, go to Kensington Ave., go where you see graffiti. If you don’t see graffiti, don’t paint there. Most kids are pretty understanding. I try not to reveal who I am, but just kinda let them know that I’m somewhat seasoned in the game, I know a little bit. I mean, even if they don’t appreciate it, I feel like I did my part.

Some of my friends give me shit, I paint work vans. Like the white ones, y’know? Like especially if I’m the first one on it. ‘Cause that’s definitely an edgy thing, like, some writers think you shouldn’t paint it, some do. But it’s mobile transportation, y’know? And it’s not like I’m hittin’ your BMW, so *Laughs*.

Who do I want to see? I just want my friends to see. Like I just wanna have a beer and just bust up about it a week later, two weeks later. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who see it that probably don’t even care. They just look at it and think nothing of it. Which is kinda cool, y’know? I’m kinda creepin’ in the back of your mind sometimes, and you have no idea what it’s about. People who are untrained to that stuff. But it’s mostly for the other writers. We try to keep it as tight-knit as possible.

I’m really glad I linked up with Colorz because I was just taggin’ at the time and, dude, he put me on to some cool shit. So me and him we were paintin’—at like 10 o’clock at night, like we shouldn’t of been out that early. We were on 19th and Indiana, and we were paintin’ this wall, and it was drizzlin’—and it’s like a super busy intersection, there’s cars constantly turning down it. And we thought, Yeah, we might be able to pull this off. So we were paintin’ these really big, straight letters. And like this cop drives by, and y’know how they got the big flashlights on their car, and BOOM! Hits me with it. And I’m like, Fuck. We’re done. He’s like, “What does that say?!” And I didn’t wanna say my name, so I said some shit. He’s like, “It’s fuckin’ ugly!” And just like drove off, sped off on us! I was like, “No!” I looked at Colorz like, “Did this just happen?? That’s crazy.” He was swervin’, like dude was just not in the mood for that shit. Just talked some shit and bounced. That was one of the cooler memories I’ve had. And that wasn’t even that long ago, and that piece still lives.

“I feel like when you think of graffiti you think of street art. If you’re not one of those things, you just think they’re the same thing. And I think they are very much separate. I don’t even say the word street art. I just call it art. I don’t think we need the attention.”

Street artists try to promote themselves. Just as a writer, I think if you have some goals to be a writer, it’s like: Get up the most, be the best at what you do, and just flex, y’know? Flex as hard as you can. ‘Cause there’s this ego, this large ego—I have it, he has it (motions towards Colorz), everyone has it. Y’know, we try to mask it up as best as we can. But some people just let it out. And like, Dude, you don’t have the skills to back that ego up. Like, if you wanna take it there, you’re just writing on walls, bro. You’re just writing on walls. Chill out. Yeah dude, just be humble and be the best writer. I think that’s what counts. If you’re a tagger, per se, a bomber.

I feel like graffiti, and writers, we want to be our own thing. And we don’t want other people kinda dipping into this little thing of ours. Laughs I’m not against street art, I think it’s cool. A perfect example is Glossback. He wasn’t a street bomber, per se, but he was very much a writer. Dude killed freights for like as long as I know. And, y’know, he’s transitioned into the fine art, street art kinda aspect. And he’s crushin’ it right now. Like, that’s cool. But, I feel like if you’re gonna have involvement in street art, be a part of it. I have this talk with my one friend a lot about, we say, “culture vultures,” which is really kind of a mean thing to say *Laughs* But just people kinda like comin’ in and watering down our culture and speaking on it without having any strong roots with it. You can’t just pop in and become a part of the scene without contributing anything to it.

I’m super, super down with street artists, but I still think there should be a divide between street art and graffiti. That’s cool that they can collaborate, and there’s people who do both, but I’d like to keep that exclusiveness with graff. I don’t want it to be all lumped together. Because I feel like when you think of graffiti you think of street art. If you’re just an average Joe, you just think they’re the same thing. And I think they are very much separate. I don’t even say the word street art. I just call it art. I don’t think we need that kind of attention. ‘Cause that’s why it’s rebellious. We do what we do because we are told we aren’t allowed to. There’s so much about writing that’s, like, Fuck what you guys think. We’re gonna do it how we want—without directly hurting people, y’know? There’s a sense of pride into it and I don’t think that it should be as open to the public, or accessible to regular people. You gotta earn your keep, man. If you wanna know about writers, you gotta be a writer. That’s how I feel about it. And I mean, like, I don’t just look for inspiration in regular graffiti. I got a couple friends who are some really talented fine artists and I talk to them for advice. They’ll be talking about their pieces and I’m like, How can I incorporate this and use that for my technique? So I’m not against street art at all, but I just think there should be a distinction. I keep pushin’ that, yeah. I’m pretty adamant about it *Laughs*.

Mural Arts, they been doin’ it awhile. They put the footwork in, they kinda have their own stomping grounds, y’know? And dude, they got a lot of walls. And some walls it’s like, Damn, I coulda painted that. But they put up good art. It’s pleasing to the eye, which I think is very important. And if it brings communities together, and it’s coming from a good cause, I’m all for it. I don’t have anything against Mural Arts. I think it’s a big stigma with writers. Like, a lot of writers don’t take the time to be so open-minded. I think it’s important to be open-minded to fine art, mural arts, street arts. Yeah, just don’t be a knucklehead. Because a lot of writers just are like, Ah, I hate street art, I hate Mural Arts, dadadadada. But it’s like, “Dude, they’re doin’ the same thing you’re doin’. They wanna paint walls. It may be a little foreign to you, but just be open-minded.”

If there was a city with no art in it, it would just be this bland, cookie-cut city with just a bunch of zombies walkin’ around, y’know? You find art in the most active and social places. Whether it be on Kensington Ave, where there’s murals on the bars, or right next to PAFA, with the airplane and the paintbrush. It’s good to put art in social places because it brings this vibrancy to the public, and just bringing that creativity to a public place is important. Graffiti specifically, should also be present in public places but I think that only those who understand it can really appreciate its value. And I think it should stay that way and stand alongside street art. People recognize it and may not understand it, but it’s definitely a thing, y’know? It’s relevant.

Streets Dept Beef

Dude, I remember—I’m not gonna put his name out there—but I was watching this other writer’s Instagram video, and he was like, “Fuck Streets Dept!” dadadadada. And like, that feeling has always been there. You’re definitely like a public enemy. And it’s kinda hard to like—that’s what I was going back to earlier. You gotta be a writer to be in the writer’s know.

Dude, I was just reading your blog today, because I’d never been on your blog before, I’ve never followed you. Like you were a name, and I’ve always heard bad things about you. So I was like checkin’ your thing out, y’know what I mean? I wanted to get a feel for what you were about, and you seem like a really cool dude. I was reading your mission statement and I was like, It’s a good mission statement! Like he’s not trying to dive in and steal our culture, but just trying to bring it to the public. Just like, yeah, it’s touchy. And like, dude, even a couple of years ago I’d probably feel that way. But like I said, it’s very important to be open-minded. I was talkin’ to my boy, I was like, “Dude, people don’t like Streets Dept. Should I do this interview?” And he was like, “Yeah, dude. Just do it.” And I recently found out that you did the petition with SEPTA to keep trains running 24/7. That’s the shit, dude. There’s been so many times when I’m out North—I live in South—out North on that bombin’ mission, it’s like fuckin’ 3:30 AM, I’m like super tired: how am I gettin’ home? Catchin’ that Broad Street Line, dude. Take me right back home. Yeah, like I definitely appreciate it, man. I was skeptical about doin’ this, but very open-minded.

On their website, the city of Philadelphia’s Community Life Improvement Programs (CLIP) department offers the following definition of graffiti:

“Graffiti is a crime that generally occurs when vandals deface properties for destructive purposes, hate crimes, or to indicate drug and gang activity. Other misguided individuals vandalize properties to showcase their tags and ‘pieces’ on your homes, businesses, vehicles, etc. The results of which are a nuisance to property owners, many of whom are unable to afford the repeated clean up costs.”

Shoba has different ideas about what graffiti is.

Is that a recent definition? *Laughs* It sounds super outdated. Dude, graffiti is not a hate crime. There is no intent to hurt other people. I get it—like, a lot people say that it’s a victimless crime, and people can back it up that it isn’t, because you’re painting someone’s property. But like, dude, you’ll live. There’s always ups and downs, and I’m sorry that we’re one of your downs in life, that you have to clean up your property because we hit it. But I don’t feel sorry for that. I feel sorry for a lot of other things, but this is a part of my life and I’m not gonna change it just because people don’t understand it, y’know? I don’t wanna hit small businesses. I don’t go out of my way to steal things, but dude if I’m at a Walmart and I see an opportunity to just put this in my pocket— like, Wait. No one’s lookin’—I’ll put it in my pocket. But I’m not gonna go to a corner store and do that, y’know? If you go to a pizza shop, make sure you tip that chick, ’cause dude she’s had it rough all day, you get those grimy customers that come in there and give you a hard time and those couple bucks help. On a personal level, be genuine and be kind to other people, and that should be incorporated into your graffiti. But yeah, fuck all that corporation shit, dude. Unless you’re in it. ‘Cause if I was runnin’ the fuckin’ Walmart, if I was CEO, I’d be like, “Yeah, fuck graffiti!” But that’s not the perspective I grew up on, y’know? I try to be as open-minded as possible. I get why some people hate us, but that’s how the dice roll.

Graffiti is a learning experience, it’s about friendship, and it’s about growin’ as a person. Graffiti is very much a part of my life and I think it always will be. I think it’s very wholesome and it’s important that, if you are a writer, take it seriously but don’t let it consume you, y’know? There’s a lot of value in it.

“It’s always a mindset I’ve had: if it’s been done before, I can learn how to do it”

I wish that I saw more graffiti in person. I mean now it’s just like CLIP is on their A-game, they’re just buffin’ a lot of stuff. Like there’s been things that I’ve hit and get buffed, like, 5-6 days later. When I first started writing I didn’t get out of South Philly, so I never saw these writers that I saw online, they were kind of like celebrity status to me. Now I know a good amount of the people that I followed online early on. But, I still don’t know some people that I look up to in terms of technical abilities of writing. But yeah, I know a lot of people now *Laughs*.

I became a little less social when I stopped chasin’ that fame, y’know? My values have changed. I really don’t know what I wanna do with my life, just yet. I’m kind of at this stand still for the past three years. I’m just working and I’m just painting. That’s all I do. I don’t put any commitment into goin’ to school, havin’ a girlfriend, lookin’ for a better job. I’m just getting by right now. I’m savin’ up money, because that’s important to have. But that’s it. I’m just painting, I’m just working. And I feel like there’s some satisfaction when you do pop up to an event and they’re like, “Oh, you’re Shoba? Like, “Dude you’re crushin’ it!” You get that little euphoric feelin’ for thirty seconds. I can appreciate that for sure *Laughs*.

I did one commissioned project recently with one of my friends, it was for a food truck. My friend works for a non-profit and he was asked to paint this truck, and he scooped me up for it. That was the only time I’ve ever been paid for writing. Which was cool, man. It was a nice little check. But I haven’t done any really big projects. I think I’d definitely like to be more than just graffiti, but for now, that’s what I wanna do. Once I find something’s that different that I can bring to the table, I’ll definitely push that. But as of right now, it’s kind of strictly graffiti.

Dude, more than anything, graffiti was, like, friendship. Growing up, I did not fit in with the kids around my neighborhood at all. Like, there was like super preppy Italian kids with white t-shirts, Adidas, and the Nike slides, y’know? And they all had cell-phones and shit, and I’m over here just wearin’ hand-me-downs, and didn’t have a phone until I was 16 or somethin’. Y’know, kids got phones at like twelve now! It’s like a thing. But yeah dude, I feel like I’ve met some of my best friends through art, just creating.

I mean I could stop, but why would I stop now? I feel like I’m gettin’ better at it, so I don’t intend to stop. I’m always gonna be creating something. I got this idea, like, if I can’t do graffiti anymore I’m gonna make furniture. I feel like I could make some dope ass furniture, dudes. I’ve never done it before, but it’s just somethin’ I’m interested in. Dude, my dad shows me stuff on Etsy, of like this really intricate, unnecessary fuckin’ furniture that’s really cool. It’s a lot of work into it and I feel like I could do that kind of stuff if I’m just given the tools and I take a couple classes, y’know? It’s always a mindset I’ve had: if it’s been done before, I can learn how to do it. And I don’t wanna take full credit, like I didn’t learn everything by myself. I met a lot of people who have shown me stuff.

Shout-outs

We got some drama right now, but shout-out to my mans Wacko, he’s one of my best friends. Shout out to Colorz, Zebo, Rapid, Kansas, Goose, Duzit, BPHOR, Seduce, Break, AVIZ I love that guy. Shout out to D-Day, that’s the boy. Shout out to Conrad Benner, shout out to Streets Dept. Shout out to Rime, MSK, and shout out to anyone who is grinding all the time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ShatteredSecurity permalink
    July 7, 2018 7:10 am

    Shiva, Love your work, great article to get some backround on your come up, but let’s not be so preachy with the “dude you never hit houses” schtick. About a month ago, you and Colorz climbed up on my neighbors rooftops to tag two homes at corner of Broad and Nectarine.
    Dope work, but you really caused me and my neighbors some major headaches. Wives are scared. Tagged right outside a bedroom window, which is creepy as fvck and now has shattered the blocks sense of security. Money coming out of our pockets now as this tight knit block looks to improve security. Keep up your work, tag on that big server warehouse across from inquirer was dope but also keep it real about the impact of the work when you writing on homes and the pain it causes those wives, mothers, homeowners.

    • ShatteredSecurity permalink
      July 7, 2018 7:12 am

      There goes autocorrect fvcking up my whole post with first word Shiva instead of Shoba. Little help from the mod to correct?

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