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Reflection on Contemporary Street Art. Specifically on the ‘Style Wars’ Documentary.

Tiyana Williams 

Professor Monterrubio

Art 101 Content & Form (Art theory)

November 3rd, 2021

Due, November 4th, 2021

Week 9: Contemporary Street Art & Style Wars Documentary

Style Wars is an American 1983 documentary and/or film directed by Tony Silver in a collaboration with Henry Chalfant. The documentary is greatly familiar to me as I have seen it a few times. Specifically, it’s about Hip Hop culture, and the film highlights graffiti. Since I have seen Style Wars a few times, there are many reasons why I found and still find the film intriguing.

📸 unknown.
📸 unknown.

One reason would be that Style Wars highlights the importance of culture that is of African Americans as a huge fraction. This statement is to not exclude any other ethnicity from this discussion because their contributions to music (hip hop) and visual art (graffiti) significantly helped progress the fruits of our culture, but I feel like Style Wars gives credit to where it is due.

📸 unknown.
📸Flint Gennari
B-boy in 70s New York. 📸 Rickey Flores
B-boy in 70s New York. 📸 Rickey Flores

To explain, even though “bboying” and rapping are discussed in the film to a lesser extent, the undertones that the main influences of breakdancing and hip hop originated from the culture of minorities (African Americans) which influenced other minorities like Latinos, Asians, etc then white people. To clarify, my point is the elements of hip-hop, bboying, and graffiti are historical moments of African American culture but influenced globally which made the pothole of these forms of art unified.

Speaking of hip-hop and bboying first, I would like to emphasize one word which is EXPRESSION. In question, I might be asked about the focus on the phrase ‘EXPRESSION’ to which I would proceed to write in this case, that ‘expression’ is an anticipated verb. What is a verb? The word verb conveys action so I begged the question to my reader if the expression is an action. I will leave it up to you to ponder, but I think so.

I think that the phrase expression is in like manner to the word verb as an action because it pertains to emotions and movement. Art is emotion and movement so when it comes to expressing it translates and delivers as a process of form whether physical or verbal. For instance, bboying known as breakdancing is “an athletic style of street dance from the United States” as a basic Google search explained.

Another explanation of a physical or verbal expression of art is music like the genre of hip hop. To make hip hop music, back then DJs used turntables and differentiation of genres of vinyl to make newly constructed beats from something that preexisted. Once DJs gradually built up their technique to breakbeat, for example, spitting tracks were coming from all over because hip hop was becoming more demanding and it resonated with what went on in the urban culture.

Grandmaster Flash circa 1980. 📸 David Corio/Getty Images

This said hip-hop is a verbal expression that contributes to a form of art just like the physical process of graffiti. I’m not a graffiti artist so I do not know the terminology such as bombing, tags, burners, etc. What I know is that graffiti is part of an artistic movement, and I do acknowledge that it is a visual art genre.

Two Cops Patrolling Subway, Bronx, NY, 1981
📸 ©Martha Cooper

In the process, and at the beginning of the documentary, depicted the urban cities of New York, in particular, shows the poor side of where minorities resided. Minorities of predominantly African Americans and Latinos and/or Hispanic ethnicity suffered to make ends meet in such poor living conditions.

With the mentioning of poor living conditions that correlate to the obvious observation of poverty, it was not unexpected then as it is not now. Living in poverty growing up, I’m certain that there was nothing to do for the youth so adolescents became creative to keep themselves entertained.

Throughout the entire documentary, I noticed the repetitive messages from different kids being interviewed, and they expressed how graffiti has kept them from death or imprisonment. This point is imperative because it proves another point that graffiti artists are not like mass murders or something that is exhaustedly and damagingly effective to their image.

Yes, they are breaking a few rules, but I think that it was ridiculous how the mayor, Ed Koch, of New York during that time mandated five days in jail for those who get caught doing graffiti. I am aware that graffiti artists trespassed onto the property that was not theirs, and have “ruined” the surroundings to what initially made certain parts of New York beautiful, but there is a major flaw to look at.

Mayor Ed Koch. Mayor from (1978-1989). 📸 unknown.
Mayor Ed Koch (1978-1989). 📸 unknown. Rip (1924-2013)

A statement by the mayor is a flaw to look at that threw me off. It was a contradiction to say that if young people are bored or less motivated to do anything positive or meaningful, that maybe they should be assigned to clean up the community such as giving a brush and cleaning supplies to do so.

One issue to what he said is that the mayor, governor, and/or those that are considered to have the upper hand should be in charge of cleaning up areas of New York, specifically the poorer parts. In other words, the youth is only accustomed to what they are subjected to. They grew up through poverty in an environment that is not safe, and healthy so what is to be expected by the authorities?

During those times all the authorities did was blame everything bad on what they thought minorities were doing. Just like they still do, and I think it is hypocritical for the authorities of that time to complain and give bogus, and unhelpful solutions that did nothing to motivate the youth to do better whereas the youth found an outlet to express themselves. That is graffiti.

Bil Rock, Min, and Kel in the City Hall layup, 1983. Bil Rock says: ‘Our peak years (79-82) were the golden age of graffiti. You could get away with so much. We had our world. The only time Jean-Michel Basquiat ever went to a train yard was with me. We bombed the entire train. Those were the good old days … before crack took hold.’. 📸 Source: The Guardian.com

What I found intriguing from the documentary was the various stories of different artists as I mentioned at the beginning of the reflection. There is a strong sense of authorship that the director focused on so that the narratives between the artists and those who opposed graffiti personal accounts were not misconstrued.

For example, I thought of the story of how Kase2 with the amputated arm became a graffiti artist. He explained how his life was not in a clean state before the bombing and getting his name out there legitimately. In short, he was messing around in a dangerous situation and touched a faulty wire which knocked him out and resulted in his arm being amputated.

Graffiti writer & significant contributor to the hip hop movement. Jeff Brown aka King Kase2 or Case2. 📸 unknown.

Then more trouble followed him which landed him in prison in 1970 and once he had gotten out in 72, a whole new ball game was implemented. He noticed how trains were soaked with the phenomenon of graffiti, and he wanted to contribute to that as well considering he was already into the arts.

Instead of thinking negatively about the obvious path that he once led, his story opened my eyes to the fact that art can help anyone overcome their struggles. In his case, he was not living right plus being disabled highlighted the importance that he pushed to contribute to something greater through the arts by not letting those things define him. I like how he explained that he wanted to do pieces to put it out there as inspiration for those who want to get to know him and his work.

Jeff Brown aka King Kase2 or Case2. 📸 unknown.

Furthermore, the first imagery they showed looks so sick! A big throw up of his name with an illusionary look to it with a yellow and orange fill and black lining around the letters. If I’m not mistaken the lettering looks like it reads ‘KASE’, but due to the quality of the upload of the documentary, it is hard to tell. I’m sure enough to make out the design enough to like it.

KASE 2 pieces on a train 📸 (via 12ozprophet.com) on Emily Colucci’s blog: https://hyperallergic.com/33197/rip-kase-2/

In addition, I like how inventive he was with his designs by using a computer rod or advancing his technique in general. He proved to be dedicated. Rest in peace Kase2 ♐✏🎨

Kase2 (left) & Cope2 (right). on Emily Colucci’s blog: https://hyperallergic.com/33197/rip-kase-2/. 📸 Courtesy of Cope 2.
Kase2 tribute. 🎨 Creator: Anthony Greco and
📸 Copyright: Greco Photography.

Speaking of hands-on, it was funny how the kid at the beginning of the film expressed how no hands from the cops were not going to touch him as he was fast and untouchable. I’m unsure of his name, but he was talking at the very beginning of the film about how graffiti is for him and other artists to appreciate instead of doing it for the masses. He described it as ‘something that keeps him driven to make his mark with or without recognition.

As an artist, I resonated with that explanation because that is what the process of creating art is. It is that driven urge to create something greater than you with or without an audience. It is the moment in time that develops into the experience of physically creating something tangible and transformative.

Another point is I like how that particular artist explained thoroughly to the crew members and mother that graffiti is not as bad as they make it is to be. Even though it was a bit negative to see the artist argue with his mother, it was funny because they both had valid points, but he overshadowed hers because she is not an artist, and she knocked off the opportunity to even understand the context of why he was bombing. She thought it was disrespectful to bomb (graffiti) his room back then when now (presently) it is culturally acceptable for people to design and/or decorate their room.

This point shows the underlying transformation (accepted or not) of the social aesthetic of how art is presented. For instance, graffiti was displayed on trains in between the 70s 80s, and even presently. It is important to inform you that in the 80s the art world used graffiti as a strategic marketable to which some artists went mainstream to show at museums whereas others remained ‘underground.

📸 Copyright: NPG/Smithsonian

In correlation, there is an interesting take on how some artists defined themselves as graffiti writers rather than artists and vice versa. Within the art community of graffiti art, there was a division between what was considered horrible from good graffiti. It was both informative and interesting to see the dynamic within the film that showed the contrastive viewpoints from an artist about another. It was even more known that one collective group of bombers had covered a piece on top of another artist and/or group of artists’ work.

The competitive dynamic between artists grew to be controversial and even physical once one or a group crossed the line of disrespect which was and is problematic. I could see this factor as an issue that the authorities desperately wanted to avoid.

Despite that negative point and on a positive one, I am intrigued by the competitiveness that once was. That is the positive point which is being competitive. I can not speak for others, but unfortunately, I do not see that type of competitiveness in the art world now. It does not even have to be graffiti or approached in the same way as it was then, but the excitement of being challenged diminished when the artwork from urbanized communities of artists was saturated in more high art, and the marketable manner in galleries.

From left: Demerock’s piece is near Will Kasso Condry’s painting of the late graffiti artist Jerry Gant; Elizabeth native Elan’s piece is watching you. 📸 Photo by Laura Baer

The huge shift started when graffiti became more marketable along with other styles of artwork that were mass-produced upon artists that went mainstream. Now, the art world is, even more, shifted with diluted art in a copying way. To add, artists copying others is nothing new, and that aspect is reflected in this documentary too as some artists expressed how others just want to disrespect or copy another work for the hell of it, when there should be a cause.

After watching Style Wars, I have my perception of what the cause might have been and still is about to this day. I think the cause of graffiti is unity and risk. Unity and risk can be correlated because graffiti artists put themselves at risk by traveling at night to bomb when it is easy for them to get caught up in danger. Unity comes into play when graffiti artists link up to create something bigger than themselves usually when there is no beef between them.

📸 ©Martha Cooper. Wild Style is another sick documentary about hip hop and graffiti.

Graffiti is a visual art form that comes as an anticipated act of creating artwork that reflects one’s life or environment and possibly both. Graffiti contributes to culture, particularly to minorities but all can be included. The historical background must be established for those to develop a deeper understanding, and that is why graffiti was and still is controversial. I don’t think the misunderstanding of graffiti was just solely about them ruining property and “tainting” parts of the environment in New York.

The misconception about graffiti is a combination of things, but I think that the underlying issue is that elements of African American culture have been appropriated for decades before our times. Specifically, the art that is influenced by African American culture has been manipulated and then harshly critiqued or penalized for how the art is presented. I think that Style Wars documented the historical origins of bboying, hip hop, but mainly graffiti open-mindedly.

An iconic image of the graffiti artist Dondi straddling two subway cars at a Brooklyn train yard. The photo “captured the intensity of having to paint quickly and illegally,” said its photographer, Martha Cooper. 📸 Credit…Martha Cooper
A SAMO tag declaring, somewhat antithetically, that SAMO is dead. 📸 Photo courtesy YouTube.

All in all, the film allows one to become educated and open their eyes to something new. Especially those that think graffiti is a negative visual experience as it was depicted back in the 70s & 80s. There is more to graffiti than what is presented on the surface. It should be shared more and even taught to the newer generations, for you cannot understand what you do not know, and what you do not know are likely to be socially acceptable to reject.

Futura 2000, Graffiti on trails and walls. 📸 Unknown.

I agree with some artists’ viewpoints that graffiti is an art form that is not for the masses. It is just not, and I find that to be an advantage as it is magical because I think that art of quality is also more likely to be rejected. After all, it is one of a kind. Graffiti is rare just like the culture of African Americans, and not everyone is going to understand, ratify or appreciate it. That is what makes art bittersweetly debatable in a dynamic way.

Above are Graffiti art & artists that appeal to me. All documentation & photographs of artwork are credited to the rightful owners unless sources are not accessible.

Style Wars documentary (via youtube) https://youtu.be/KpWxHTNYx6k

In correlation to Style Wars, I wrote a research blog post on photojournalist Martha Cooper about hip hop and graffiti also presented in Wild Style. Here is the link. https://oartta3r.tumblr.com/post/648204203370610689/research-blog-5-april-11-2021-meet-martha

Follow me on WordPress for more literature on various topics.

Let’s become friends. Tumblr : https://www.tumblr.com/blog/oartta3r

If you have made it this far to the end, thank you very much for reading. I hope that you found joy and insight from this reflection. Much love ☮♥🎨.


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