Monday, January 17, 2011

Style Wars

All this week we'll take a look at some classic hip-hop films from the 80s and talk about the early days of the music and the culture from four different angles: graffiti writers, deejays, breakdancers, and emcees.

Style Wars
seen online via YouTube

I should say upfront that I do consider graffiti an art form, albeit a highly misunderstood one. Living in New York most of my life, I've seen far too many good examples of it to think otherwise. Like jazz music, there's an improvisational skill involved in its creation that's the result of numerous hours of practice. The connection to territory, the self-identification with a specific place, is an integral element. And like any artist, graffiti writers want their work to give them a shot at immortality.

I knew one or two writers in junior high school. (When I say "writers" in this context, I'm referring to those who make graffiti.) I thought what they did was cool and all, but I was never as caught up in that aspect of hip hop. Understand that when I was growing up, hip hop had already begun to go mainstream. When my father bought me Run DMC's King of Rock, even he knew who they were by that point because rap was everywhere. Still, I never aspired to be a writer.

Something changed in me when I got older, though. Part of it was my drifting away from Top 40 music, which included rap, and more towards rock and metal, which changed my attitude towards rap for awhile (more on that later in the week). Most of it, I imagine, was the simple fact of learning more about the world and seeing it differently, but suddenly graffiti didn't look so cool to me anymore.

I still have some memories of the days when graffiti covered subway cars. Being a kid, I didn't think anything of it; that's just how things were back then and I never questioned it. I'm more used to seeing graffiti-free subway cars in my life than I am to seeing "bombed" ones. So I've come to accept that that's the way it should be, and not only for subway cars.

I watched Style Wars with an open mind. I listened to the various writers of the 70s and 80s talk about their lifestyle, and the lengths they go to pursue it and why, and I was even able to see some of the beauty in these urban murals that adorned the subways, but I still found it difficult to fully appreciate.

Part of the problem is its omnipresence. The way it covers so much territory in so many places is more than a little disturbing. Seeing so many "tags" on top of each other, consuming the same areas endlessly, makes it lose any aesthetic value it might have had at one point and just become ugly. (In fairness, the movie does address the ostracism of those who write over other people's work.)

Another part is the danger element. I understand the desire for people to see one's work, but when you see the places writers go to do their work - high atop bridges, deep within the underground tunnels, on rooftops - it makes you question the sanity of some of these people. There's a scene in Style Wars where a teenage writer and his mother are interviewed, and the kid says he tells his mother where he goes and what he does, which is laudable, but then he says something like how he knows she worries, but he's never gonna get caught by the cops, so it's no big deal. At that the mother rolls her eyes.

My friend Reid, who's very much into graffiti, has tried to explain the danger aspect to me on numerous occasions. He and his pal Nick often go on escapades around the city, looking for the most out-of-the-way areas to find graffiti to photograph, often at risk to life and limb, and since they know many of the current writers in New York, they often find "tags" they recognize. Personally, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, but that's just me.

This brings up another point, though, one that gets touched upon in the movie. One writer says that he doesn't consider himself an "artist," but a "bomber," i.e., one who deliberately defaces public property (at least, I think that's how the slang term is defined), and a different one (I think) says that he doesn't do what he does for the masses, but for his peers. That would, I suppose, explain the obscure locations often chosen for their work, but it wouldn't explain the subway cars, which many New Yorkers use. Maybe I'm too caught up in the artistic aspect of graffiti to see it otherwise, but why use such a grand canvas in the most public of venues if not to attract the greatest audience?

Speaking of which, there's also a scene showing graffiti art in a gallery, with a bunch of "regular" people commenting on its merits. I have yet to see the controversial film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which has garnered quite a bit of praise over the past months for its skewering of the mainstream art world through street art, but I'll just say here that I think the disconnect between what's considered "high art" and "low art" is absolutely a topic worthy of discussion. Does graffiti lose its context once you put it in a frame and hang it in a gallery? I don't pretend to know the answer. (I was disappointed that no mention was made during this scene of street artist turned mainstream wunderkind Jean-Michel Basquiat. I would've liked to have known how the writers of the day looked upon someone like him.)

I've told Reid this, and I don't think he entirely disagrees, but if I were mayor of New York, I wouldn't fight the graffiti writers - I'd commission them. I'd attempt to harness their energy towards civic projects that beautify the community and pay them for it. There's an area here in Queens that Reid and I have been to on several occasions called 5 Pointz, a kind of studio where graffiti can be made and seen in its "natural habitat," so to speak - in this case, an old warehouse. It's quite breathtaking, and if I were in charge I'd encourage more venues like it. I may not entirely grok graffiti, but I do believe it's art of a sort, and that its practitioners should have a place to pursue it - preferably, one that enhances the city's beauty instead of detracting from it, and one that doesn't put their lives in jeopardy!

Graffiti tends to provoke strong reactions in people, both pro and con, so if you have an opinion on it, I'd love to hear it.


  1. It gratifies me as always to see myself in other's words.

    Just wanted to make a clarification for your own knowledge. 5 Pointz is NOT an abandoned building. It used to house art studios, storage spaces and much more. It's completely active and once in a blue moon they used to even have open studios, as a lot of quality artists used the space, especially being across the street from P.S.1.

    In 2009 the DOB shut it down as a space for that and it has since been slowly getting reconverted into just a regular factory space, with the outside still being owned by Meres and the 5Pointz crew.

  2. Didn't know that. Will fix. Thanks.


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