Thursday, January 19, 2012

Style Wars, Brought to You by the Internet

It's not often that I see a movie so good I feel disoriented. But ever since seeing Style Wars, a documentary about the early 80s hip hop scene in New York, I'm having a hard time concentrating. I want to learn more and more about that moment in time, when just about the most disenfranchised young people made the city their own by covering subway cars in graffiti art, not to mention inventing breaking and rap.

The film gives a glimpse of New York when it still had tumbling down or burned out buildings, not a lot of people around, greenery taking over empty lots, kind of like Detroit today. People of different races share accents cause they grew up in the same neighborhoods. It's exciting to watch the young dancers and bombers talk about their craft, even though they were filmed before I was born. A successful ethnographic documentary communicates the feeling of some social scene, and this thing is driving me crazy wondering what it must have felt like to be part of that moment in time.

I can sit at home in Seattle during an ice storm and learn about New York in 1982 because of the information infrastructure called the internet that people have used to post details about figures like Iz the Wiz, Rammellzee, Lee Quinones, Crazy Legs, and on and on. People who believe in the value of the film have launched a fundraising campaign to restore Style Wars. What have they done to get the word out? Posted the film on Youtube. Letting copyright issues get in the way of sharing cultural history would be about as stupid as the city of New York washing graffiti off subway cars. It didn't make it go away, it just damaged some pretty impressive works of art.


  1. Love that doc. If you're interested in that history, check out Jeff Chang, Can't Stop, Won't Stop't+Stop+Won't+Stop+:++A+History+of+the+Hip+Hop+Generation

    Also graff has an interesting history in LA as well, Susan Phillips' Wallbanging's always been recommended to me.

    I see graff as a kind of advertising, I wondered a while back if they removed all advertising, as they apparently did in Sao Paolo around 2008, would graffiti decrease as well?

  2. Cool, thanks for the tip! I swear, this documentary has been such a distraction, it's like an energy bomb.

  3. Dear Ms. Adonia,

    I must differ with you regarding graffiti on subway cars and other public property. Some call it art, many of us call it vandalism. Many visitors to New York back in the 70's were appalled by all the "hooligan hieroglyphics" sprayed on the subway cars, and decided that there were safer places to spend their vacation money. Funds that should have been used for keeping the trains in good repair was spent on paint remover and wages for the appliers of same. There's one story I hear that the NYMTA built dual fence lines around the subway yards, and had attack dogs roaming between the fences. It reminded me of the fellow who put a sign on his gate: "Have you had your dinner? Our pit bull hasn't." Closer to home (Southern California): A news report from about 20 years ago told of a car that had gone off the Long Beach Freeway bridge over the Union Pacific East LA railroad yard. A UP switching crew found the car, with a number of deceased young people in it or near by. There were comments about the sad story of young lives cut short. Then a followup article mentioned the large number of spray paint cans found in the wreckage, and the attitude (at least among many middle class white suburbanites) was "Serves the @#$% punks right! Good riddance!"
    On the proverbial "other hand" my wife used to drive along the San Bernardino Freeway on her way to work in LA. There was a retaining wall near the County Hospital that had the usual assortment of "stuff" meaningful only to the local gangsters, but one artist added a beautiful Unicorn to the mix. Since my wife is a unicorn fan, this would brighten her day, and although she didn't mind when the scribbling was painted out, she did miss the unicorn.
    I'll wind up with the story from the San Fernando Valley a year or so ago: One homeowner actually LIKED spray-can art work, so he invited a local pressurized paint artist to liven up a wall around his yard. To say his neighbors did not appreciate his taste would be an understatement. Collectively, they "had a cow" and "went straight up and turned left". I've forgotten just how this all played out, but it illustrates that even when it's done at the invitation of the property owner, it's still a sore point.

    1. Interesting stories! I think graffiti's a questionable thing, not only because it gets used as a territorial marker among street gangs (like where I grew up in San Juan Capistrano), but also because of the nasty toxins in spray paint. I kind of wondered, in watching this documentary, whether these kids were getting high on fumes, or if they also went to the trouble of huffing from the paint cans. Huffing was a serious problem in my old neighborhood in LA, and it's a really nasty thing to come upon a child actively suffocating herself to get high. That said, I think that people who have been ghettoized by racist public policies, like the early graffiti artists in New York, should have more recognized rights to the public spaces they inhabit. I certainly don't think gang tagging is a form of civil disobedience, but I think conceptual and complex street art can be.