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Style Wars, a PBS production, was filmed between 1981 and ‘83, largely in the Bronx and Queens. Still cited as a classic piece of hip-hop history, it's an unnervingly calm movie capturing a particularly delirious moment — a moment replicated so often in throwback movies and rap songs that to see it in the comparatively 1:1 ratio of a documentary film can be jarring.
Though originally intended as a movie about the broader hip-hop movement, Style Wars ended up narrowing its focus early on to the crews of graffiti artists swarming New York City. Much of its beauty, actually, is that it accidentally stumbled into documenting a scene in that sweet spot between its inception and its transformation into something that could be called a "genre," with cleaner edges and crowds of onlookers. Style Wars was there to film what happened when graffiti exploded to the point of feeling pressure on all sides — from the art market, from the cops, and from an internal battle over whether density or pure style made you the king of New York.
Shot on a combination of black-and-white and color film — 16mm, rather than on something more "versatile" like super 8, on the insistence of the director — the film moves between interviews with first- and second-generation graffiti crews and long, spooky shots of painted-up subway cars rolling by. The movie has weirdly dry public-access narration and a schizophrenic (if, yes, totally wonderful) soundtrack — it opens with a Wagner opera that transitions not too stealthily into a Sugarhill Gang track.
This is the New York of The Warriors and Run DMC
This is the New York of The Warriors and Run DMC, a New York where you can barely see the subway seats for the paint. It's a city often memorialized as being more "real," even if at the time of Style Wars' production the paint-dissolving chemicals and harsh punishments for vandalism had already been deployed by Mayor Koch.
Around the time the filmmakers started attaching $2,000 mics to these 14-year-old bombers in the Bronx, graffiti culture had flourished to the point at which there were real legends to tell — a "folk culture" in the parlance of the documentary's droll narration. Some of these kids, who look about 12 or 13 years old, give detailed technical explanations to the camera on the finer points of outline, fill, and color saturation; they lay out a near-obsessive taxonomy of crews and artists that started writing a decade prior. They learned what they knew from watching Zephyr and Phase 2 splash intricate neon bubbles across New York's subway cars: styles that took, more than just the daring to climb the elevated tracks, planning and artistry.
When the crew isn't being interviewed, in subway stations and their mothers' kitchens, they're throwing up full-wall multi-layered wall pieces. Until, that is, their work starts to be plastered over by Cap, now arguably one of the most notorious villains to ever shake a spray can at a New York City wall.
Cap's chosen road to graffiti royalty came in the form of density and repetition. He covered entire train cars and whole faces of buildings with his tag, a three-letter silver gash that took him, at most, a second and a half to throw up. He was likely inspired by Taki 183, a Greek-American teenager who in the early ‘70s wrote his name and street number thousands of times around New York City. To this day, Taki is widely credited as being the first tagger to expand significantly outside his own neighborhood, even his own borough. His basic, magic-markered tag was so ubiquitous it got him an improbable and truthfully quite perplexed write-up in the New York Times [PDF].
"The object is more. Not the biggest, not the beautifulist. Just more."
Cap sought a similar kind of ubiquity, even if it came at the expense of his rivals. "The object," he tells the camera in Style Wars, "is more. Not the biggest, not the beautifulist... just more."
And so the key tension — of a war between crews littering the city with quick throw-up tags and those "bombing" subway cars with increasingly complicated pieces — came into focus. Thirty years later, though the genre has widened and its various strains have mutated in some cases to the point of being almost unrecognizable (hello, wheatpasting and guerilla knitting!), the lines between defacement and art are similarly blurry.
Not long ago, the celebrity street artist Banksy appeared in New York to do what he called a monthlong "residency," offering up near-daily stencils and the occasional sculpture to the city's residents. During his stint in the city, Banksy's work was vandalized in a number of ways, depending on what your definition of the word "deface" is. His artwork was ripped off walls, sold for too much money, remixed, fought over, knocked-off, and scrubbed clean by the Fuzz. But it was also tagged over, Cap-style, repeatedly, much to the frustration of Banksy's numerous fans.
"They call themselves writers because that's what they do."
The tags covering Banksy's work is graffiti in a way the artist's own stuff isn't, really, except maybe to Mayor Bloomberg — graffiti as a marking of territory, a word more closely aligned with "loitering" and "trespassing" than "art." It's complicated in New York City, of all places, where Style Wars was filmed and some of the first graffiti kings held court; where one of the most famous graf walls in the country (5Pointz, or "The Institute of Higher Burning") was completely buffed and whitewashed under cover of night just a few days ago.
Watching a building owner physically assault a tagger for attempting to write over one of Banksy's paintings, or seeing 20 years of writing covered in a single evening, it's hard not to want to pour one out for Style Wars and its vision of a graffiti culture 30 years past. To this day the documentary is both revered for exposing an unknown world to the masses and called out for, well, ruining it. Both are probably true.
But Style Wars' narrator, in the first minutes of the film, makes it sound so simple. "They call themselves writers because that's what they do," he says. "They write their names, among other things, everywhere."