STYLE WARS (1983) /

Starring: Wildstylin' NYC vandals, their tsk-tsking moms, and appalled city officials
Director: Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver
Writer: N/A
Distributor: Plexifilm (USA 2003)
Rating: This film has not been rated, but would be PG-13 for nudity in art, language, and property crimes

Mixed Reviewer Martin Scribbs
A look at the1983 documentary STYLE WARS and its update
The International House,
3701 Chestnut Street,
Philly, PA

Graffiti is single-celled rebellion, the most basic conflict of art and authority. In the 1983 doc STYLE WARS, we see young NYC "writers" fill blank walls and deadly-dull train exteriors with colorful murals of their art, their lives, their names. The doc purposefully omits instances of private property being overwhelmed by vandalism, so as to put "bombing," as the vandals call it, in its most sympathetic light. Why put up barbed wire and fences around the trains, or deploy attack dogs, or run the subways through a rinse that turns them the color of rust and vomit? Is street art that disagreeable?

Aesthetics isn't the point, authorities bristle. "Is it art? I don't know, I'm not an art critic. But it's sure as hell a crime!" one Transit Authority cop informs us. In the film's opening narration, the directors inform us that many see vandalism as a sign of "a city out of control." In other words, art cannot be beautiful unless it is authorized.

STYLE WARS breaks through the censors and examines the work itself. Indeed, the movie is so biased towards the artists that it is best seen as a marvelous visual catalog of their work, as opposed to a rigorous debate thereon. Young men (mostly) with noms de bomb like SEEN or PHASE 2 or BLADE exhibit technique and forethought in their crime. They preplan designs, select fonts, prep the space, draw cartoons, fill them in, draw 3-D and embroider backgrounds. We see them argue over color palettes, mentor younger writers, and learn from the commercial art around them. They build their reputations train car by train car, line by line, until their work can be seen in all five boroughs -- the Holy Grail, going "All-City".

We see the galleries glorify these Michaelangelos of the misdemeanor, oohing and ahhing over the motion and energy inherent in their work. (At its most vibrant, the writers' work evokes the bustle of futurism. While that school was discredited by its association with fascism, street art served as a route through which a rekindled love of kinesthetic art could be sanitized.)

At the other extreme from the collectors, we hear the bellyaching of Mayor Koch and city officials. When told that putting a proposed guard wolf in the trainyards might result in injuries to the writers, a flummoxed Koch demands, "Isn't that the point?" A brief montage of subway riders -- "Commuters have rights too!" and "I think its a disgrace!" -- is the flimsiest of fig leafs for STYLE WARS' obvious infatuation with the charismatic artists.

As with the best of documentaries, STYLE WARS leavens the exposition with a little drama. The "real" writers are royally ticked when a ne'er-do-well named KAP starts painting over their work. The intricate art they had done, gone in a moment, replaced with a splotchy KAP. The filmmakers actually capture KAP on film, in the act, at which time he justifies himself. "People like that," he says, cryptically referring to the other artists, "deserve to be erased forever." As Sartre observed about jailers and slave-drivers, KAP is a perpetual NO! on the existence of his fellow men. He's really no different from Koch or the Transit Authority.

STYLE WARS tries to weave together threads of rap and break-dancing with the main theme of graffiti, with small success. While all three involved NYC youth developing their own styles through competitive play, the film just don't spend enough time with rap and break-dancing to give a good sense of those scenes. Plus, the break-dancing segment is so badly dated that it brought peals of laughter from the audience with which I viewed it.

Still, STYLE WARS provides a glimpse into the artistic process (with its beautiful, criminal, and competitive aspects) and preserves a big chunk of public art from a NYC that no longer exists.


You would think that a 2003 update to STYLE WARS would have a LOT to say. About Guilliani and the war on "quality of life" crimes in NYC, including vandalism. About hackers, many of whom see it as their calling to deface public spaces on the Internet. Or how about the tale of how rap is king while break-dancing is dead as a doornail?

No such luck. STYLE WARS REVISITED just touches base with "the stars of STYLE WARS". It's only mildly interesting that some kids from the original movie have gone on to the military, or to be graphic designers, or have gone to seed. Or that the "breakers" from the original doc are now teaching dance moves to kids at the Y. Culled from the bonus materials of the STYLE WARS 20th anniversary DVD, REVISITED moves beyond the original not one inch.

-- Martin Scribbs

Review text copyright © 2004, Martin Scribbs and Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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