What is Style Wars about?
Style Wars is a 1983 documentary about graffiti in the city of New York. Made by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, the documentary features interviews with local city officials and graffiti artists, telling the story of the rise of hip-hop as a subculture as well as the influence street culture had on the city and its younger people. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics and audiences alike, Style Wars received the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival and continues to be a powerful aesthetic and informative reference to anyone serious about learning more about hip-hop, graffiti and the socio-economic impact these art forms had on New York in the eighties.
What stood out to us?
As a documentary about graffiti on New York’s subway trains and walls, Style Wars seeks to address larger issues on politics, socio-economic disparities, race, family and free speech. At the core of this documentary lie questions about identity and the role political systems play in either acknowledging or quashing it.
Style Wars spends a good deal of time exploring the inspiration, motivation and methodology of graffiti artists discussing their aesthetics and their unwritten codes of conduct. It proves to viewers that although city officials might simply dismiss them as vandals, graffiti artists are members of a larger community marked by the need to freely express and create identities that defy socio-economic and political boundaries. Featuring interviews with renowned artists like Min One, Dez, Iz and Seen, the documentary showcases them for who they are, including their challenges, and their reasons for creating graffiti and ‘tagging’ trains.
Style Wars also talks to city officials and New Yorkers who do not appreciate graffiti and do not believe in encouraging graffiti as art. The mother of a young graffiti artist speaks to the interviewers describing her disappointment with her son’s work, while mentioning her fear over his late nights, close proximity to trains and constant brushes with the law. There comes a point in the documentary when there seems to be an uneasy truce between the graffiti artists and those who disapprove of their work, with a glimpse into the future of the art form — something best understood on watching the documentary.
Why watch it?
Style Wars is a delightful, beautiful and nostalgic glimpse into the world of graffiti and hip-hop. It is a storehouse of information for anyone interested in understanding the origins of graffiti with some historical perspective. As funny as it is sad, this a great way to be introduced to the art form and the accompanying nomenclature used to describe the different roles undertaken by graffiti artists.