Style Wars Screened On Campus

On Wednesday, November 5th, the UVM Anthropology Club sponsored the showing of the 1983 documentary, Style Wars. The viewing was held in Lafayette 108 at 7:30 PM. Featuring a soundtrack that mixes old school hip hop (perhaps not so “old school” at the time) and classical music, the documentary examines the graffiti phenomenon of “bombing” and “burning” in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the attempts by Mayor Ed Koch and other city administrative officials to stop the graffiti. The documentary concentrates mainly on subway train graffiti, and is rich in images of the old New York trains absolutely covered in “pieces” and “tags.” The documentary is structured with several intersecting storylines. The camera goes back and forth between the stories, which altogether manage to include racial issues, family issues, legal issues, and territory issues, while seeking to examine the social import of the graffiti movement and address opinions both for and against the graffiti. Several important graffiti artists, or “writers,” of the time, including “Seen” and “Cap,” are followed and interviewed during the course of the film. The most poignant storyline in the story is also the funniest; a boy and his mother discuss his late-night subway system bombing. The boy stands with his arms folded against the kitchen counter, and his mother sits in front of him at the kitchen table. She is clearly worried about her son, but she also has a wry take on the situation, referring to the graffiti movement as “a whole miserable subculture.”. She struggles to understand what point her son sees in risking the law and his life for the sake of art that most people will not know is his, and that will probably be taken down soon enough. He tries to explain that it’s just “for people to see.” Even as the two argue and clearly miss each other’s generationally-influenced viewpoints, the sense of love between them in the scene is tremendous. Those who are not fans of the movement do what they can to stop the artists; Ed Koch makes it a point to mention that he is in favor of the death penalty, though he is quick to say that he would not advocate implementing it in the case of graffiti writers. He also talks happily about his plan to safeguard the train yards with barbed wire and wolves. He presents his plans to discourage writers; an expensive program, that uses famous boxers and posters with catchy slogans, and that prompts one reporter to ask, “Are these posters graffiti-proof?” Other interesting subjects of the documentary are the origins of graffiti and its pioneers; the conflicts between taggers(who typically value quantity of tags over quality of pieces) and the more artistically inclined (who would rather create one big beautiful piece than tag up as many surfaces as possible); and the future of graffiti, including the advantages and disadvantages of graffiti’s transition from the trains and streets to the galleries. Aside from writing (“Rock the city”), the other two elements of hip hop, “MC-ing” (“Rock the mic”) and “breaking” (“Rock your body”) are also explored in Style Wars. Whether you have ever been interested in the graffiti culture before or not, this film is worth seeing if you ever get the chance. Besides providing an informative and interesting look at graffiti writers of the 1970s and 1980s, the film manages to capture a moment in hip hop’s progression, a cultural moment existing somewhere between the beginnings of hip hop’s awareness of itself, and the outgrowth of other sub-movements such as gangsta rap. It also captures a period in New York City’s cultural history quite accurately. Even if you’ve never found yourself gravitating toward graffiti before, after seeing this film you may very well find yourself agreeing with writer Kase 2 when he says, “I did something to make your eyes open up.”