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Style Wars




Style Wars, 1983

This documentary follows players from multiple sides in the ongoing battle between graffiti artists and the various officials trying to keep their tags off of public property.

Exit Through the Gift Shop has probably established itself as the ultimate film about street art, but this documentary has a lot of heart and an appealing range of interview subjects that makes it a must-see.

There are a lot of people to like in this film---on both sides of the “war” over graffiti---but a young graffiti artist named Skeme and his weary mother are the absolute beating heart of this movie. It’s perhaps one of the most endearing relationships I’ve seen in a documentary. Skeme’s mother realizes the futility of trying to keep her son in the apartment, and can only give him epic motherly looks of disapproval as he talks about how he will never be caught/arrested. For his part, Skeme always tells his mother when he’s going out to spray paint, and that detail is incredibly winning.

So yes, everything involving Skeme and his mom is precious. (Precious, but obviously underscored by the fear his mother feels knowing what might happen if her son encounters the wrong kind of person---cop or criminal---while out adventuring). But the rest of the film is also very engaging. It’s pretty obvious that the filmmakers are largely sympathetic to the graffiti artists, highlighting the effort and artistry that goes into their work. Despite this, the film gives plenty of screen time and a sympathetic ear to the people on the other side of the conflict.

If you’ve ever had a job (or lived in a household) where cleaning up after others was a regular part of your routine, you will sympathize with the men whose jobs require keeping the New York subway cars in clean condition. You can endlessly debate the degree to which the graffiti looks nice/is art/is pleasing to the eye/etc, but whether its a stylish abstract print of a crude penis outline, these workers spend hours cleaning the cars only to repeatedly see them defaced.

Something that I wish the film had explored more is the range of graffiti. All of what we see created is, to my eye, pretty neat looking. One of my favorite sequences is watching one of the artists sketch out his ideas on a notepad. But we all know that for every abstract or signature, there are hastily sketched profanities or sexually explicit images. The question of what to do about graffiti on public property is a bit complicated. I wouldn’t particularly like commuting to work every day having to look at porn-ish images of topless women, racial slurs, etc.

Overall this is a very engaging documentary with an enjoyable cast of personalities.