The true story behind Philly’s famous ‘Boner 4ever’ graffiti

Two artists linked up to create North Broad’s most prominent tag.

The Beury Building is famous for its signature graffiti

The Beury Building is famous for its signature graffiti

Instagram / @ajrombie
layla

Written in giant letters along a historic building in North Philly, “Boner 4ever” makes Philadelphians feel a certain way.

The idea that the city’s most famous graffiti might disappear from the Art Deco structure near Broad and Erie sparked a huge rallying cry after Philly Mag wrote about the upcoming renovation of the site into a mixed used development that may or may not include a Marriott hotel. The news got so much attention that developers are now promising to pay homage to the tag into their revamp somehow, according to the Inquirer.

The iconic graffiti, which graces both sides of the 14-story tower — it reads “Forever Boner” when viewed from the south — even got a moment of national fame when CNN covered Philadelphia’s 7-hour police standoff last summer.

But where did it come from in the first place?

Over the years, online buzz has put forth a few theories. One school of thought has it that the word isn’t actually “boner” but should instead read “B Oner.” A “oner” is a term for a graffiti artist who doesn’t roll with a crew. Another commonly told tale holds that two artists named Boner and Forever linked up to squash a beef.

“It’s amazing how these stories just form out of nowhere,” said Culture Livingston, a former graffiti artist who went by DENSKE in the late ’80s and ’90s. “They’re all incorrect.” While the tag does represent two artists, there wasn’t any beef that brought them together, he said.

“The two just met, and they just went out writing,” Livingston told Billy Penn. “It’s as simple as that.”

A bubble ‘B’ and the ‘kid’

Boner hails from Brooklyn, per Livingston, and came to Philly just to write.

“A few years back, Boner was tearing shit up,” Livingston said. “He really made a name for himself, especially as a New York transplant to be able to come to Philly and cover area in a way we respect, it was a significant thing.”

Graffiti artists often come to Philly from around the world because of the city’s unique handstyle, made famous by the late tag pioneer Karaz. That’s not the case with Boner, “because he writes in the traditional New York scripthand,” Livingston said.

A less-visible detail on the famed building supports the idea. There’s a cute little bubble “B” with a swirly eye on the back side of the building pointing east. That “B” is Boner’s signature tag and it’s everywhere around Philly.

Meanwhile, Forever is a Philly graffiti artist from the Frankford area who’s been tagging for a while. He used to write “kid” and sometimes still does. Forever’s tag is often spelled “4ever” or “4eva.”

Graffiti writers commonly tag together or add to the tag of writers whose work they admire, explained Livingston, who produced a documentary on the history of Philly’s scene. In the graffiti world, it doesn’t necessarily denote a friendship, he said, but more a mutual respect and admiration.

Boner and Forever have cooled down recently, but their impact on the Philly street art stretches far beyond the North Broad landmark.

The duo’s impact has popped up on walls, bridges and highway signs around the city. A more decorative collab once adorned the Divine Lorraine, and Boner’s “B” has been spotted next to “4ever” on the Market Street Bridge at 30th Street Station. There’s even been reports of the phrase appearing as far away as South Carolina.

Graffiti ‘doesn’t last forever’

More officially called the Beury Building, the “Boner 4ever” building first opened in 1926 as the National Bank of North Philadelphia.

It was formed by a group of neighbors and business owners to encourage community development, and local attorney Charles Beury was selected as the bank’s first president, hence the building’s namesake. Beury was also the second president of Temple University

When the bank shuttered during the Great Depression, the massive building was used as office space. It was added to the National Historic Register in 1985.

The building sat vacant for more than four decades. The famous graffiti appeared on it around 2008. Shift Capital acquired it in 2012 and shared plans for development as early as 2015. Plans now call for a hotel, 164 market-rate and affordable residences, and retail space at the site.

While the rest of the city, and maybe the nation, mourns the potential loss of “Boner 4ever,” Livingston said he and other graffiti artists recognize their work is probably only temporary.

“One of the things that we understand with graffiti is that the collateral damage is, it doesn’t last forever,” Livingston said. “Even if the tag goes away, they’ll always tell the stories of who we are, what we did and the times that we did them.”

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn story

Find everything you need to know about Philly, every day — in clear, direct language, like a good friend might say.

No clickbait, no cliffhangers: the Billy Penn morning newsletter.

Thanks for supporting Billy Penn!

Test your local knowledge — join us for the next Philly Quizzo virtual event, or take the quiz online.

Lock in your support

Reader support powers our local pandemic reporting. A monthly membership helps lock it in.

Can we count on you as a Billy Penn sustainer?