Sunday 28 January 2007

Style Wars (1983) - ickleReview (Google Video)

Graffiti, break-dancing and hip-hop: the three main ingredients of this compelling documentary about New York "bombing" culture. Directors Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver feature candid interviews with graffiti writers, who try to explain why they pursue their dangerous and controversial lifestyle. Some of the artists, such as Seen, are really very talented and speak eloquently about their desire to go "all-city": spreading their work across the Metropolitan Transport Authority's trains, taking them all across the five boroughs. Some of the other writing is less aesthetically pleasing, particularly on the inside of the trains. The MTA spend millions trying to clean up their rolling stock, but end up corroding it with the harsh cleaning fluids, which don't even clean off the paint properly.

New York City Mayor Edward Koch fights a losing battle against the entrenched culture, which is embraced by blacks, Puerto Ricans and even whites from rich private schools. Their is a culture of respect for each other's work amongst most of the writers, but some bombers, such as the malicious Cap, are just out to destroy other people's art, defacing their designs by tagging on top of them.

The graffiti writers have a second identity: each has their own nickname, which is the main thing they write. One of them compares it to his mother's doodling on the telephone. Although his doodling is conducted in public, he says it's just for him and the other writers. He doesn't seem to care that to some of the MTA's 3 million daily passengers, it might be less pleasing.

Chalfant and Silver appear to side with the graffiti writers. The figures of authority trying to stop the graffiti are portrayed as somewhat petty, arrogant and unable to comprehend the reasons behind graffiti culture.

What is missing from this film is a deeper investigation of the history of graffiti writing. I want to know when it first started, how it has developed, whether New York really is the centre of the world and how it managed to spread to every Western city.

Nugget: a fascinating look into a largely misunderstood act of modern urban culture.

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