The Style Wars DVD.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 11 2003 10:36 AM

American Graffiti

Remembering New York City in the age of graffiti.

One of New York's most famous graffiti cliques back in the '70s was a Brooklyn-based crew, Graffiti Never Dies. I remember seeing a block-letter piece of theirs unsuccessfully squeezed onto a subway car so that it read "Graffiti Never Die"—as though exhorting graf itself to live on always. Now that possibility is rekindled by the recent release, on DVD, of Style Wars, a 1983 documentary about the world of NYC graffiti.

Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant [Correction, June 11, 2003: Tony Silver directed the film; Silver and Henry Chalfant co-produced it.], first aired on PBS in 1983. It was one of the earliest and most influential accounts of a culture—hip-hop—that the rest of the world soon came to embrace. Though the film touches on rap music and break dancing, its emphasis is on graffiti, and this two-disc DVD, with three additional hours of footage, including outtakes from the original film, offers a thorough account of graffiti's golden age. (For more on major writers and crews from the period, click here.)

A graffiti artist, 1981
A graffiti artist, 1981

My own history in graffiti was brief—I was never much more than a "toy," the fairly derogatory term for apprentice. Still, starting in 1975, I managed a minor career in some of the city's better known cliques, like the Masters of Broadway (the MOB), which mostly operated out of the No. 1 subway yards in Riverdale. The yards were full of risks: Some you could see, like barbed-wire fences and a dark bumper crop of electrified third rails; others you were always on the lookout for, like guard dogs and transit cops. But when the authorities finally got me, it wasn't under the stars in the No. 1 yard, with the giddy smell of spray paint on metal in the air; it was at rush hour in the Times Square station with two other MOB writers. They were caught tagging a phone booth. Amazingly, the cops never found the marker hidden in my underwear. In my family court hearing a month later I told the judge that regardless of whether or not I wrote graf—and no one had any proof I did—I thought it was a good thing for the city. My mother, who had found traces of ink and paint on all my clothes, told me to shut up, and next fall I was in boarding school in Connecticut, continents away from the center of the world.

The No. 6 train yard, in the Bronx
The No. 6 train yard, in the Bronx

To my mind, the kids who didn't hang out in the subway system just didn't have a proper grasp of what the city was—the range of pleasures and dangers, the expanse of sheer space and urban humanity covered by the trains. For all the racial and ethnic groups involved in graf, Style Wars takes racial harmony a little too much for granted. This was a culture composed of teenagers who'd been handed the legacy of the civil rights movement and managed to make something out of it together. Our neighborhoods were hard by each other's, and we all met on the subway, a genuine melting pot (interesting how that phrase seemed to pass from general usage along with the advent of graffiti-proof subway cars in the late '80s). Race relations were both strained and vital. There were legendary, and maybe just rumored, incidents between the mostly white GO Club and the mostly black Pearls, but there were also scores of white kids listening to Parliament and Sly Stone, and black kids, like EZE 1, digging Zeppelin and Sabbath. And all of us had the same dress uniform—flare-legged polyester pants with white stitching down the side, in colors like powder blue, orange, and kelly green, named AJs after Alexander's, a midrange department store on Third Avenue where you could find them.

When graf started in the late '60s, the point was to make your name, or tag, known—thus the letters were easily legible. Within less than a decade this changed drastically as style overtook content. In the mid-'70s, writers began to choose shorter tags whose letters presented more compelling stylistic challenges. The letter as a graphic element became the focus and grew more twisted and distorted. A writer named Rammellzee called this "arming the alphabet." This was graffiti's baroque age—and also its golden age. In the '80s, New York gallerists got interested, and graffiti "art," as it became known, grew eminently marketable. "Artists" were happy to be able to sell their work on canvas. The problem, as many of them admit in Style Wars, is that the work is different on canvas. Much of the thrill of looking at graffiti was seeing it on a train—the scale, the suspense, the bravado of the artist who had risked arrest for his work, and the very obvious fact that the material was meant to move.

The genius of a great graffiti writer lay not only in his choice of colors and his bold sense of composition, but, like the incomparable Blade, in his ability to master the raw material of the subway car itself. (See Blade's Web site.) Watching a Blade "burner" that had subsumed an entire subway car roll into a station was one of the first aesthetic experiences that didn't have to be explained to me. You looked quickly and took it in closely, because the piece might get scrubbed off the train within the week. Graffiti in its essence then was ephemeral; it was something beautiful and useless that challenged the most obviously useful aspect of modernity—transportation, the speed of getting people from here to there. This tuition is a signature of real art, even if much of what wound up on subway cars wasn't really artful.

For most New Yorkers, of course, the 1970s were a nightmare. Graffiti, for them, often stood for that ugliness, and efforts were repeatedly made to get rid of it. The MTA's clean-train initiative effectively killed off graffiti as a living art by the early '90s. As time went on, writers who produced the most interesting work were those who absorbed other ideas about art. Dondi was getting away from the strictly graphic and his canvases showed he was exploring color fields, but he died at the age of 37 in 1998. Mare 139, another talented artist who's still at it, moved on to sculpture.

The words “Style Wars” in graffiti
The words "Style Wars" in graffiti

To my mind, the most moving parts of the Style Wars DVD are the recent interviews with some of the film's stars, teenagers 20 years ago, most of whom are now much thicker around the waist. A thoughtful Mare 139 says of graffiti's history, "We lost the trains but gained the world." In the 1970s, some New Yorkers in their youth built an Atlantis underground that became the world's. Thus, graffiti can never wholly die. [Correction, June 11, 2003: Tony Silver directed the film; Silver and Henry Chalfant co-produced the film. The error was introduced when this article was copy edited.]

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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