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Philadelphia’s Encrypted Script

Philadelphia’s Encrypted Script


Maximum respect to Infamous Magazine, who originally ran this insightful piece on the Philly hand.

First and foremost, if you are reading this article, you fall into one of two categories. Either you grew up seeing the handstyle known as “wicked,” or you didn’t. Trying to please both audiences presents a unique challenge. For those who know and love the wicked as part of their own cultural history, you begin to read an article like this with a mix a skepticism and dread; who are they going to forget, who’s going to get left out, what “definition” of the handstyle will be presented, and how wrong or off will it be? On the other hand, the rest of the people who are curious to know – or know more – about this craft, they come to the table with no expectations, but what is written will become one of the few points of reference about the topic. Accordingly, there is a lot of responsibility in writing about wickeds. In short, this type of graffiti writing is a local craft, handed down from old head to young bol, older brother to younger brother, even father to son, and in that sense it as much an oral tradition as it is an actual craft. With the methodology also comes the oral history, the stories, the neighborhood variances, even block to block within those neighborhoods. For some in the audience who appreciate the new global playing field of graffiti, a wicked handstyle may seem simply like another “font” in a collection of fonts, like a “New York handstyle” or something comparable.In contrast, for many local Philadelphians, wickeds are much more than another way to write your name, and more akin to something like religion, something sacred.

With these conflicting audiences in mind, the impetus behind this article is to provide a glimpse into the evolution of handstyles known as “wickeds”, but – at the same time – not divulge a specific “recipe” of sorts that gives away the special ingredients that comprise them. In the simplest terms, wickeds are like a local accent. You can study them, you can even learn how to do them, but without living in the city of Philadelphia and starting from scratch, most likely you’ll never be able to duplicate one, and a local will be able to spot a fake or forced wicked from a mile away.

With all that said, for the uninitiated, you must understand that the wicked handstyle is a way of writing your Philadelphia handstyle in the most advanced, technical, complex, and smooth way. If you don’t already know or understand what a regular Philadelphia handstyle is, this article is not the place to begin. In other words, you can not write a “San Francisco handstyle” as a wicked. It is a non–transferable craft. To put it harshly, as many Philadelphians have to their non–local friends over the years, “no, you do not simply put a bunch of squiggly lines in the middle” to make a letter “wicked.”


This misconception is one the biggest regarding wickeds, that they are simply Philly tall hands slathered with a bunch of nonsense to make them look crazy or unreadable. When, in fact, they are carefully constructed to appear that way, and are in no way haphazard or chaotic in their structure as they may appear to the uninitiated. The closest analogy (closest because not everyone agrees on this locally, but it is the closest fit) is that a wicked is comparable to a “wildstyle” piece, in the sense that any real graffiti writer can tell the difference between a real wildstyle piece that is the culmination of years of foundational work in simple letters, and mastering all the elemental steps of making a piece more and more complex in a balanced and stylish way, rather than a piece that is simply confusing and unreadable to hide the lack of foundational work.

However, the distinction that makes any analogy to piecing challenging, was best put by CAEM KMD, who emphasized that, when you make such an analogy to piecing, it ends when it comes to the average citizen viewing a wicked tag versus a “wildstyle piece.” Most likely, the piece, despite being complex, has widely accepted forms of color, composition, etc., that make it aesthetically pleasing to even those who can not read its letters. In contrast, the most intricate wicked, while a thing of beauty to those “in the know,” would be (and often is) referred to by the average citizen as “chicken scratch” or “scribble scrabble.” Where the wildstyle piece shows other writers you’ve mastered the craft, it still provides for the masses. With a Philly wicked, the end product is beautiful only for the select group who understand it, and no one else.

The parallels are similar, however, in the evolutionary sense, in fact the belief is that what is now known as a “wicked,” was once called a “wildstyle” handstyle, and that the chaotic, angry, jagged feel of the product was later described as “looking wicked,” and at some point in the late 70s or early 80s, the adjective became a noun, and the style has been called “a wicked” ever since. As a minor point of clarification, the term itself is often spelled also as “wicket,” however this is simply a transliteration of the sound of a Philadelphian’s accent saying the word “wicked,” or basically the slang casual way of spelling a word the way you say it. It can be spelled either way, but the meaning, in either spelling, is that of the word “wicked,” meaning both evil as well the pinnacle of style; nasty as hell – in the best sense of the phrase.