Style Wars Documentary Review Essay


Directed by Tony Silver
USA, 1983
Genre: Hip Hop

First aired on US public television, this is the original hip hop doc, present at the creation on New York’s streets. In the late 1970s, young African-Americans, whites, and Puerto Ricans were going around the city “bombing” – spray-painting their nicknames on subway cars – and it was driving then-Mayor Ed Koch up the wall. Director Silver and his producing partner, Henry Chalfant, followed graffiti artists around as they talked about and plied their art; the filmmakers spoke as well to various other colorful New Yorkers who branded that art vandalism. The journey led them into a youth street culture of bombers, B-boys, DJs, and MCsthe proverbial four elements of hip-hop, viewed here still with its baby teeth, though it’s already got plenty of bite. Koch and the transit officials eventually won the battle with their guard dogs, concertina-wired train yards, and graffiti-proof paint, but Style Wars reveals the origins of a culture that blew up into styles that traveled out of the subways and around the world.

Bret McCabe is the arts editor at Baltimore City Paper. Public Art Films, which holds the rights to Style Wars, is raising money to restore the damaged original negative and strike a new hi-def master for a future DVD/Blu-ray release; you can learn more or donate at the movie’s website.


Tagged breakdancing, graffiti, hip hop, rapping, Style Wars|

'Style Wars': Documenting Graffiti Artists

Hip Hop Film Recounts Early History of NYC Subway Outlaws

Min One at City Hall Layup, NYC 1982. Courtesy Henry Chalfant hide caption

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Courtesy Henry Chalfant

"Mean Dez Skeme" on the Broadway Local, NYC. Henry Chalfant hide caption

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Henry Chalfant

In the early 1980s, New York kids reacted to the urban decay and poverty around them with a burst of creative self-expression that became known as hip hop: rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti art.

Subway trains were the white canvasses graffiti writers used to make their mark on the world. In 1983, PBS aired Style Wars, a documentary chronicling the early days of hip hop, when young graffiti "taggers" used to spray their names on subway trains for fame, to the chagrin of authorities and their parents. NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks back on the film, which has just been re-released on DVD with updated material.

Style Wars celebrates the graffiti artists' modern-day hieroglyphics, and captures the days and nights when the young outlaws ruled the subway lines.

The film follows notorious graffiti writers such as Min One, Dez, Iz and Seen as they sneak through subway tunnels to train yards, avoiding the ominous electric third rails. Armed with cans of Krylon spray paint, they outrun transit police to create mural masterpieces with block letters and cartoon figures, all in the name of fame. Style Wars documents the thrill of seeing their so-called "wild style" graffiti tags on passing subway trains throughout the city.

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