"I'm out here to bomb, period. That's what I started for. I didn't start writing to go to Paris, I didn't start writing to do canvases. I started writing to bomb... destroy all lines."
So says Skeme, one of the main characters of Style Wars, the landmark 1983 documentary chronicling the throes of New York's subway graffiti era. "Bombing," for those not in the know, is painting a train. "Writer" is a term serious graffiti devotees apply to themselves. And when they talk about their work, they use the term "piece," as in objet d'art.
That, of course, is the central dilemma of the movie, though it resolves rather efficiently. Is graffiti art or anti-social behavior? We're not talking about nasty vandals or quickie tags here, but what happens when a crew gets together with 30 cans of paint and a plan to do a whole car in vibrant multicolor. The answer is abundantly obvious based on the evidence alone, but producers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant pound it home most emphatically. Art is art for art's sake. And that's exactly what motivated the kids in NYC during the period around 1980. Flash a quick ironic script hastily written on a train door: "FROM HERE TO FAME."
Says the young man Skeme:
It's a matter of... knowing I can do it. It's for me... I don't care about nobody else seeing it. It's for me and other graffiti writers that we can read it.
The thing that makes Style Wars so special is the brilliant way it illuminates graffiti culture, normally hidden in the depths of night while it imagines and creates images for the day. Co-producer Henry Chalfant took pictures of trains in NYC for three years before he met the artists; and when he finally went to the infamous "writers' bench" (central gathering place and idea exchange), it took months for the kids to accept that he wasn't a cop. But what a reward: vivid pictures of these artists' raw material, their ideas, and their motivation. All captured on film. The B&W color in this setting lends an entirely appropriate underground air to the operation.
Scenes between the teenage writer known as Skeme and his mother periodically appear throughout the movie. He's devoted beyond comprehension; she's completely (and realistically) mortified. But what can you do? He's an artist. The message: these writers had mothers, too.
Extended footage documents the transformation of a blank brick wall into a sparkly, bright mural with the headline "United Artists" and the frontline "Seen." The writer known as Seen directs this production, coordinating his crew and making sure the ideas in his head come out right on stone. There's an appropriate degree of flexibility and tolerance involved, too, since this is clearly a group event.
First comes the outline. Then the fill-in, which covers it up. The colors, chosen carefully. The background, and whatever details fill in the space around the main figure, and then it's basically done. It's very serious stuff. A certain amount of banter from the artists at work helps viewers understand what's going on in their heads and in their hands.
At the end, the transformation is complete. Just like a subway train, which would be illegal to paint and thus incriminating to film, but done in sunlight with ladders and plenty of time to get it right. For the most part, passersby marvel and delight in the piece that results.
The enormity of the event does not go unnoticed. As Dondi remarks later in the movie, bombing can be a daunting task:
You're like a little dude, you're like in the midst of all this metal, and like you're here to produce something.
Bonus points for getting it right, and major status points for having your own style. The title of the movie gets at the heart of this culture. It's not about following other people's ideasthough every participant in the film expresses respect for the long lineage of graffiti writers beginning with Taki 183 (from 183rd Street in Washington Heights) around 1970. It's about creating your own thing, making something fresher than what else is out there. And getting it out for other people to see.
From the moment the film's title drifts across the screen like it was painted on a train, you know you will be seeing a lot of locomotion in this film. A whole lot of cars. Some images are organized around themes (for example, Seen's myriad creations, with a rainbow of colors, endlessly varying letters, and idiosyncratic cartoons). Others just pop in and out. The great white Merry Christmas train, for example, with straightforward calligraphy script right down the center of the car carrying a perky holiday message. And they say commuters didn't like this stuff?