Fishtown man spearheads national anti-bullying movement

People from all over the coun­try have already pos­ted dozens of pic­tures on Sy­boll’s Face­book page of them­selves “Do­ing the Sy­boll.” PHOTO COUR­TESY OF SY­BOLLNA­TION

By turn­ing a quirky per­son­al­ity trait in­to a na­tion­wide craze, neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter Sy­boll is spread­ing a mes­sage of peace, not to men­tion selling thou­sands of pieces of mer­chand­ise and speak­ing at a loc­al school.

Fishtown man Sy­boll — who has no last name since he leg­ally changed it in 1998 — is noth­ing if not full of per­son­al­ity.

That’s per­haps best ex­em­pli­fied in his trade­mark ges­ture, “The Sy­boll,” which en­tails mak­ing the Amer­ic­an Sign Lan­guage ges­ture for “love,” along with a kissy-face ex­pres­sion. It’s a bit of body lan­guage that speaks to Sy­boll’s nature as a pro­moter of peace.

That’s just what he’s do­ing through an anti-bul­ly­ing move­ment he’s call­ing “Sy­bollNa­tion.” And while his name­sake ges­ture sug­gests a bit of sil­li­ness, Sy­bollNa­tion is no joke — he’s filled 22,000 or­ders since Janu­ary for Sy­bollNa­tion mer­chand­ise, and re­cently gave an anti-bul­ly­ing talk to 175 ele­ment­ary school stu­dents at Moth­er of Di­vine Grace School in Port Rich­mond.  

It all star­ted in Decem­ber, when Sy­boll starred in a Christ­mas-themed series of videos made by his 16-year-old niece, Lauren Grabfeld­er, which she pos­ted on You­Tube. In the videos, Sy­boll made his in­im­it­able ges­ture, and said people who saw the videos began tag­ging him on Face­book and us­ing the hasht­ags “Sy­boll” or “Sy­bollna­tion” on Twit­ter and In­s­tagram.

He es­sen­tially, then, be­came a vir­al in­ter­net trend. Sy­boll said teen­agers from as far off as Knoxville, Tenn. had star­ted tag­ging him in pho­tos of them­selves “Do­ing The Sy­boll.”

With the at­ten­tion he’s got­ten simply from be­ing him­self, Sy­boll said he’s now dir­ect­ing the at­ten­tion in­to something pos­it­ive.

“It’s been a move­ment to turn the ‘me gen­er­a­tion’ in­to a gen­er­a­tion of caring,” Sy­boll said of Sy­bollNa­tion.

End­ing bul­ly­ing is a cru­sade close to Sy­boll’s heart. Born Wil­li­am Mun­ger, Sy­boll — whose name is an ac­ronym for “stay young beau­ti­ful, oh live life” — was a vic­tim of bul­ly­ing while grow­ing up in Fishtown, and said he now hopes to pro­tect loc­al kids from the har­ass­ment he en­dured.

“I’m truly humbled about this,” Sy­boll said of his new­found re­cog­ni­tion. “Maybe at first it was people mak­ing fun of me, but we’re turn­ing it in­to something pos­it­ive.”

Now, Sy­boll said, people have pos­ted pho­tos of them­selves “do­ing the Sy­boll” from 23 states and three for­eign coun­tries — Ger­many, Aus­tria and Ja­pan.

Sy­boll said teens go­ing through break­ups or oth­er tough times have sent him mes­sages seek­ing ad­vice. Adults, he said, have also con­tac­ted him to share their memor­ies of be­ing bul­lied as chil­dren.

To help, Sy­boll said he gives out hot­line in­form­a­tion and ad­vises people on oth­er ways to seek help, as well as send­ing them his t-shirts, but­tons and brace­lets.

When Sy­boll spoke to MDG stu­dents last month, Prin­cip­al Jane Lock­hart said that the stu­dents already knew of him due to vari­ous so­cial me­dia.

“He told the kids, ‘I was bul­lied grow­ing up and words do hurt, and you need to be good to each oth­er,’” Lock­hart said.

Sy­boll, a long-time club pro­moter, drug aware­ness act­iv­ist, and busi­ness­man, has in re­cent years dealt with nu­mer­ous per­son­al tra­gedies.

His moth­er died after a long ill­ness in 2009, pri­or to which Sy­boll was re­cov­er­ing from a dev­ast­at­ing home rob­bery in 2007, in which he was beaten and stabbed. His 21-year-old neph­ew was murdered, and his best friend fell off a two-story home and be­came brain-dam­aged, and now lives with Sy­boll.

“It’s been a dec­ade of troubles,” Sy­boll said.

Grow­ing up, Sy­boll at­ten­ded St. Lauren­ti­us School and North Cath­ol­ic High School be­fore go­ing to Bucks County Com­munity Col­lege.

“I al­ways loved Fishtown. I didn’t have many friends. Be­ing gay was not tol­er­ated here,” Sy­boll said of his up­bring­ing.

Be­ing bul­lied, in­sul­ted and pel­ted with spit­balls for be­ing gay was part of Sy­boll’s life in high school, he said. That’s why Sy­bollNa­tion is ded­ic­ated to stop­ping bul­ly­ing and of­fer­ing a help­ing hand.

“I know I didn’t have an out­let,” Sy­boll re­called of his child­hood. “When you are get­ting teased every day for be­ing gay, you don’t want to go to your Mom with that, be­cause you’re em­bar­rassed.”

He plans to build on the mo­mentum of Sy­bollNa­tion to or­gan­ize an anti-vi­ol­ence event this spring.

“He’s def­in­itely a pos­it­ive role mod­el for kids,” Lock­hart said of Sy­boll.

For more in­form­a­tion about “Sy­bollNa­tion,” vis­it sy­ or fol­low Sy­boll on Face­book or Twit­ter.

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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