Style Wars (1983)
Style Wars is a documentary look at the street art among the youth of New York in the early 1980s, especially in the South Bronx, particularly in graffiti art and break-dancing. The film takes a balanced look at the youth culture, showing the artistry and thought involved in young people trying to make a name and impact by creating art for people all over the city to see on the side (or the interior) of a subway train, but also shows the frustration on the part of then-mayor Ed Koch, as well as law enforcement, in trying to keep the city from the blight of illegal art that often looks like gibberish to most people.
The interviews and other content were shot over the course of two years, from 1981 to 1983, with light narration from Sam Schacht. It originally aired on PBS stations in January of 1984 before heading toward the film festival circuit and winning several prestigious awards. The documentary would mark the first exposure for many outside of the region to hip-hop culture beyond a few of the known hit songs like “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, which are among the rap songs featured in the film. Producer Henry Chalfant had started the film as a documentary on break-dancing, but he felt that there wasn’t enough material to make it a feature documentary, so he included the footage to include rapping and graffiti art, the latter of which would become the predominant focus of the feature by the end.
Director Tony Silver and crew manage to get some surprisingly personal looks at the graffiti artists. One goes into the home of a teenage artist named Skeme, whose mother is also interviewed showing her ceaseless disdain for her son’s hobby that she thinks is too dangerous and a colossal waste of time for little perceptible value. He takes great pride in his works going “all-city”, meaning that a train traveling throughout the city will be seen by New Yorkers all over. He claims that it doesn’t matter who see it, but one gets the sense that he is proud to announce to the world that he indeed exists, and the importance that his work will fill the eyeballs of many, even if only to observe it as blight, is something he finds great value in.
Cops set up barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs to keep the graffiti artists from getting into the private railroad yard and painting up the brand new and clean cars before they go out to their inevitable public home where they are vulnerable. Interviews are not only given to Mayor Ed Koch, during a movement where he begins to crack down on the vandalism in a two-pronged approach that provides extra security for the subway cars, but also an advertising campaign to try to paint the practice as not only a crime, but also un-cool among their idols, including famous actors and athletes that tell them that it’s not the way to success. Other interviews on the anti-graffiti side include NYPD offices and MTA employees who show that the cost of graffiti is substantial, not only to the quality of life, but also in the removal (which to many makes the environment even uglier).
Style Wars is called such because it emphasizes the progression of graffiti art from being merely just someone tagging their names in public places to actual fully painted murals on city walls, subway tunnels, or the sides of train cars. Even the writing of one’s tagger name becomes an elaborate piece of art in itself.
Some of the artists managed to get their art showcased on canvas in galleries to have their work taken seriously, even though the street taggers may not respect this as much as making their name seen and make a more public impact on a city wall or as a train travels around the New York boroughs.
Style Wars is delivered with astonishing insight and access to people who you would normally think wouldn’t want to have their faces shown on camera for fear of harassment or apprehension by the authorities.
The demystification of the graffiti artist makes this a particularly unique look, as, to most people, there is no connection between the art one sees in the public arena and the artist himself. Many assumptions are made about the nature of the “vandals” as a result. One myth that is exposed is that graffiti is done almost exclusively by black or Hispanic kids in the inner cities, as a large collection of the kids shown are white. Another is that only young punks are doing the art; we come to learn that the graffiti art is just as much a vocation among adults, some who you would likely never suspect of ever picking up a spray can, much less going out and breaking the law to get their name on a roving train car.
Is graffiti art or is it illegal vandalism? Does it make for a more interesting cultural environment, or is it diminishing the quality of life for all of the denizens who have to see it all around? The answer may forever be within the eyes of the beholder, but Style Wars does show that there’s much more that meets the eye than you might have otherwise perceived. As a movie about graffiti art that has been in and out of vogue over the years, it’s interesting enough, but as one of the earliest documents of the burgeoning hip-hop movement just before it broke out of its home in the Bronx, it’s absolutely vital. Blight or beautiful, one thing is for certain – this documentary on graffiti has become a treasured work of art in itself.
Tony Silver and producer Henry Chalfant would revisit the material and the featured artists again twenty years later with the 2003 short documentary, Style Wars: Revisited, featured on the 2003 release of the DVD.
Qwipster’s rating: A
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language and suggestive material
Running Time: 69 min.
Cast: Ed Koch, Skeme, Seen, Case, Dondi, Crazy Legs
Director: Tony Silver