Style Wars (1983)

Style Wars (1983)

A brilliant, infectious portrait of the golden age of New York City’s graffiti scene

The Very Best

8.5

Movie

United States of America
English
Documentary, Music, TV Movie
1983
TONY SILVER
Cap, Daze, Dondi
70 min

TLDR

Amazing for many reasons, not least because it captures the moment the then-Mayor of New York City discusses his plan to use actual wolves to stop graffiti artists.

What it's about

A documentary exploring the vibrant graffiti subculture of 1980s New York City through interviews with its artists and detractors.

The take

Whether graffiti is art or not is the question guiding this fascinating documentary about the spray can-wielding artists of ‘80s New York. Wherever you come down in the debate — though this presents compelling arguments that graffiti is a medium worthy of critical attention — you’ll undoubtedly come away with a reverence for the kids who went hard with the paint on NYC’s walls and subway cars. Candid interviews with these young pioneers (whose cultural contributions are now less in contention) reveal that they’re not simply rebelling for rebellion’s sake: they’re largely motivated by a desire to make their mark on their beloved city — to stand out and have their work seen by the millions riding the subway every day.

The doc largely embeds itself with the artists, but it also interviews the “other side”: then-mayor Ed Koch and police officers, who were ramping up their aggressive “war on graffiti” campaign during filming. It’s clear that these interviewees have little interest in understanding what drives the kids to create their murals — a lack of curiosity that Style Wars blessedly counters. Not just a thoughtful contribution to its period and a fascinating time capsule, but also a thought-provoking reminder that art is art, whether it's made outside of the system or not.

What stands out

Style Wars vibrates with infectious punk spirit. Hearing the artists (as well as early pioneers of break-dancing and rapping, who together with graffiti artists helped form hip-hop culture) speak so poetically and passionately about why they do what they do is invigorating enough to make you want to pick up a can and hop a fence yourself. Though the doc sadly charts the beginning of the end for this era of graffiti, it — thankfully — bottles the electric energy of the time for posterity, making it an endless source of inspiration in any period.

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