Published May 01, 2003It's been 20 years since Style Wars, the hip-hop documentary about the lives of graffiti writers first surfaced, and as the scene has evolved in the last two decades, it has become even more crucial and relevant. With the additional footage featured in a new DVD reissue, the historical context of one of the most important films ever made about hip-hop is preserved and further heightened.
For many, Style Wars represented the first authentic look at a burgeoning subculture brewing in New York City. "You have to understand that New York was this terrible place in many ways," says the film's director Tony Silver. "It was so worn down. The infrastructure was so fucked and it was just after a long period of turf gang violence. Here was this group of kids who worked out their competitiveness, their violent antagonisms with other kids and crews not in a gang way but in a way that produced an art form."
Much like Wild Style, another indispensable hip-hop film of the same era, and unlike the Hollywood hip-hop films that quickly followed it, Silver's stylistically gritty Style Wars put the lives of those for whom b-boying and graffiti writing were a daily operation at the fore. Navigating the innards of the transit system, entering the lay-up yards and avoiding the electrified third rail to execute their "pieces" on trains under light and time constraints, graffiti writers craved the currency of neighbourhood and all-city respect within their circle of writers. This desire pushed them creatively and the style progressions of bubble letters and the infamous "wild style" lettering raised the creative stakes.
"They became dedicated to this activity as the core of their existence," says Silver. "The idea of discovering themselves was something that might not have been there when they started. They didn't start out, most of them, to make art. They started out to bomb and to get their names up and discovered within themselves something else." While conflict definitely existed within the graffiti writer's social circle, style wars of an entirely different kind were being fought on social and political levels as in the documentary graffiti writers incurred the wrath of the city's mayor, police force, transit authorities and their own mothers.
With pressure converging on many fronts, graffiti was eventually virtually eradicated from the trains, but it proved to be just the beginning as graffiti just moved on to different canvasses. Writers like the late Dondi, Seen and Kase 2 were canonised by the film and became inspirations for legions of graffiti writers worldwide, and photographer and film co-producer Henry Chalfant has published well-received books on graffiti from his voluminous photo archive. It's also important to note that there is priceless footage of the Rock Steady Crew in the film, representing the visual elements of hip-hop and helping to pave the way for the sonic boom of DJing and MCing that had begun to emerge.
With all the changes in hip-hop culture that have taken place, Style Wars has doggedly retained its appeal. "For years people would always ask, Are you gonna do a Style Wars 2?'" says Silver. "What happened to those people? Grandmothers would ask me that."
Silver uses the DVD version of Style Wars to provide the story's next chapter. Witnessing Dondi deconstructing the work of Rammellzee in a mesmerising outtake, ingeniously presented artist galleries that emulate trains passing across the screen, and Doze contributing incredibly insightful analysis into the geometric links between b-boying and graffiti add layers of meaning to the film itself. The Doze interview is one of many where Silver and his crew catch up with graffiti writers featured in the film back in 1983. Some are now tattoo artists, soldiers, doting dads and popular DJs and some have fallen on hard times. Some throw down throw-ups at a moment's notice; others don't. Yet through the varied and unfailingly engaging personalities that are encountered, it's evident through the passion graffiti contributed to their sense of self and the indelible mark graffiti left on them is as enduring as the film itself.
"We didn't know how historic it would turn out to be and how those people would become mythic characters," says Tony Silver. "Their exploits and their achievements are kind of a beacon really. The film itself still feels as fresh now as it did then and it doesn't feel like a cult antique because they don't feel like that and they still inspire people."