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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Style Wars

By Published: April 17, 2003

Of course they didn't. They got to see the vandalism and crude tagging inside the trains, relentlessly scratched onto every corner of the car. They were very upset. They insisted that Mayor Ed Koch solve the problem, and so he becomes a main character in the film. What a serious dork. Honestly. (The filmmakers are not exactly unbiased here, so their opinions color the whole affair.)

Koch says these writers are "all in the same area of destroying our lifestyle and making it difficult to enjoy life." Ahem. He carefully juxtaposes murder and graffiti when discussing capital punishment. He blunders hopelessly and backwardly when introducing the ad motto "Make Your Mark In Society. Not On Society." Says Koch, "I'm hopeful that it will, uh, work." Just to emphasize the seriousness with which he views the issue, he makes an astounding parallel to another great achievement during his tenure:

Nobody thought we would be as successful as we were in the campaign against the drought and water conservation. Nevertheless, that worked.

Enough of that. Another insidious evil appears in the form of Cap, whose specialty is painting his crude sign on every train and stamping out any other piece that might have found itself a comfortable home: "I am not a graffiti writer, I am a graffiti follower. Blood war, buddy!" Even though Cap manages to defecate on most of the community's creative artists, they lack the will or the courage to organize against his blatantly militarist stand. An interesting twist in the story, for sure. Regardless, the theme of confrontation emerges at many levels: between writers and the city, between writers and their enemies, and among the community of writers themselves.

Style Wars touches on so-called "graffiti art" (the high-brow version), which borders on total crap despite its moments of brilliance. Some "retired" bombers turned to canvas and sculpture to continue their ideas, and the results are interesting but mostly void of the intensity and energy found in the train pieces. Since bombing more or less died out, it's left its mark but it's never been the same.

Related elements of the NYC underground around this time are interwoven tightly into the story. Break dancing, for example, plays a major role. So does early rap. The four pillars of this culture all come together at various points: graffiti, B-boys, rap, and hip-hop. While graffiti remains at the center of the story, the aptly named Crazy Legs gets his due amount of footage for superhuman moves on the floor. When the Dynamic Rockers meet the Rock Steady Crew, Crazy Legs (and Li'l Crazy Legs) take center stage and the crowd goes wild.

In one of the outtakes, Dondi shows off his graffiti-inspired canvases, way down in a very un-studio-like basement. They fall short in majesty but make up for it in inspiration. He talks about the importance of symbols and shares some of Rammellzee's thoughts about how "the only way to destroy a symbol is with a symbol." He demonstrates a painting that he originally made in 1980 with the words "I Love New York," now completely covered up with another, based around the simple letter "B." Says Dondi, "I like it much better now." RIP.

Not to wax overly nostalgic about the era, but graffiti (and its highest art in the form of subway bombing) bears incredible relevance to art's role in society. Cultural confrontations like this persist to the day, despite the ever-intrusive tentacles of mass-produced media. Nobody knew in the early '80s that their era would give rise to a new form of music that would dominate the industry for decades. Hip-hop and rap are just two obvious examples of how the underground broke ground and soared into capitalist heaven. It's too bad NYC decided to paint its bombers into oblivion (quite literally), because in the process their nucleus simply imploded.

The movie itself is impressive at every level. The raw footage of painted trains is breathtaking in its intensity and diversity; and the connections between personality, motivation, and talent appear constantly in unexpected ways. The social context of the subculture gets its due, both on sympathetic and confrontational fronts.

Unlike many DVD releases these days with bonus material, this one has some wonderful stuff to offer—nearly endless train footage (200 cars!); interviews with producers, editors, and artists; images and music. That second disc is a gold mine. (Compare the 70 minute of actual movie time with the 3.5 hours of bonus footage and you get the general idea.)

When Style Wars came out in 1983, it caused a major stir. For a film funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities, and many others, it took a very subversive stance. In the end, the filmmakers got their point across: art is culture. And—sometimes—culture is art.

Production Notes

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