Calling Philly Home

From the 215: The cultural imprint of Philadelphia’s area code

The numbers are a recognizable signpost for the city, used in everything from music to business to art.

Exterior of Tat215ive shop

Exterior of Tat215ive shop

Instagram / @tat215ive
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It’s shouted out in songs, graffitied on bricks, flaunted in social media handles, branded on businesses. and tattooed on skin. The 215 area code is an instant cultural identifier for the Philadelphia region. When you see it, you know it’s local.

Philly has been associated with the digits since 1947, when AT&T unified a patchwork of scrambled-egg codes being used nationwide. Entrepreneur Tayyib Smith, who founded a magazine called Two One Five, called it “the quintessential of cool” for his generation.

“If you’re a kid at Temple who moved here from Lancaster, and you ask, ‘Why’s it called that?’ people will give dumb looks — and you’re not going to ask it again,” said Smith, 50.

In the past half-century, metro populations grew to the point that the Federal Communications Commission started to run out of numbers. In Philly, 267 popped up in the 1990s, causing a minor freakout among residents. With phone lines continuing to proliferate, new area codes are now being added at high frequency.

But the original ones still carry all the cachet. Nearly three quarters of people living in the U.S. say area codes have “more prestige” than ZIP codes, according to a 2011 telecom survey. Respondents overwhelmingly thought having a “recognizable” area code added legitimacy and professionalism to businesses.

As Philadelphia becomes increasingly recognized as a world-class city — Gucci recently rolled out a “Philly Versus Everybody” t-shirt that retailed at $390 a pop — 215 iconography has become not just a signpost of locality, but a good marketing tool.

For people living in the region, its cultural imprint runs deeper than commerce.

Early editions of Two One Five magazine

Early editions of Two One Five magazine

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

‘All the way live from the 2-1-5’

Rap music in the 1990s helped codify “the 215” as part of Philadelphia’s identity.

Musician Dice Raw, a North Philly native, said he didn’t hear the phrase until he started making albums with The Roots. Beginning with their 1993 debut album “Organix,” Roots frontmen Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and the late Malik B made recurring hometown references across their jazz-inflected verses.

“I never said that shit in my life,” said Raw, who has recorded verses on most of the band’s albums. “That’s something that Tariq and Malik used to use intimately between themselves. But then other people would say it.”

The area code became a call sign for the band. On “Respond/React,” the opening song of their third album “Illadelph Halflife,” Black Thought loops over the opening refrain with “All the way live, from the 2-1-5.” On 1999’s “Things Fall Apart,” Brooklyn rapper Mos Def uses it to describe his cameo appearance: “All the way from the 2-1-5th to Bucktown / Brace yourself, it’s about to go down.”

It’s become a ubiquitous phrase. In Meek Mill’s “Milladelphia,” the North Philly native riffs about “Pulling off in the 215 / Told you it’s Meek time.” In a cameo on French Montana’s song “Have Mercy,” South Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel says, “This goes out to those who choose to use disrespectful views / On the king of Philly — represent the 215.”

It’s also now commonly co-opted as part of a stage name, in use by dozens of artists found on streaming services like Spotify, Bandcamp or Soundcloud.

That proliferation has extended to fashion, television, and all facets of branding.

The Pennsylvania business registry lists over 200 entities beginning with “215,” and another 10 with “two one five.” The LLCs read like members of a secret society: 215 Yoga, 215 Plumber, 215 Towing, 215 Thrive, The 215 Guys, 215 Get A Cab, 215 Got Hurt, 215 Never Stop Trucking, 215 Mad Love.

The “code” is so easily understood that most Philadelphians recognize it in a whisper or passing glance.

For example, the Easter egg in a late-season episode of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Will Smith’s character gets shot during an ATM holdup in California. His cousin, played by fellow Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff, visits him in the hospital to offer some comedic relief.

As the camera pans by, there’s a brief shot of the number on the door. You guessed it: he’s in Room 215.

Would anyone ever get a 267 tattoo?

Smith, of Little Giant Creative and Two One Five magazine, believes today’s ubiquitousness has stripped 215 of some authenticity.

“If someone were to see two-one-five spelled out the way that we did, I knew people under a certain mindset would immediately … get that harkening back to the days of the early Roots and the quintessential of cool,” he said.

Others still see it as a way to rep the city. When it came time for Mike Digiacomo, owner of Tat215ive in Queen Village, to name his first tattoo shop, he couldn’t name it after himself because his “last name is too hard to pronounce,” he said.

“So I was listening to Black Thought, my favorite rapper, and writing down names, and it just came to me,” Digiacomo said.

In the mid-1990s, faced with what the Federal Communications Commission called a number shortage “crisis,” the 267 area code was added to the region. By 1999, in a change that at the time seemed existential, residents had to start actually dialling the 2-1-5 or 2-6-7 before when making local calls.

This represented a psychic break for some Philadelphians. How would we ever learn to get along with this alien code? If two rowhouses share a wall, but not the same three-digit code, are they even really neighbors?

“[It’s] going to be taxing our brains,” a Drexel computer engineering professor told the Philadelphia Daily News about 267. “It has no geographic reference.”

Philly is not alone here. Residents of New York City took an emotional blow in the 1980s when Manhattan usurped the 212 area code all to itself. More than a decade later, Manhattanites were miffed to learn they’d be adding another code to the island.

As the years pass, it becomes harder and harder to get one of the OG numbers. FCC officials predicted Philly would exhaust even the 267 availability by 2018 — and they were right. In 2016, the Pa. Public Utility Commission approved a plan to implement an overlay with another three-digit area code: 445.

Significantly fewer brains melted down as a result. People are used to the reality of expanding area codes by now, and few memorize numbers anyway in the age of smartphones.

But as cultural signposts, none of the area codes have the same cachet as 215. Would anyone ever get a 267 tattoo on their arm to rep Philly?

Doubtful, said Digiacomo, the Tat215ive owner: “I’ve never done that.”

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