From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The 1983 PBS documentary Style Wars documented hip hop culture and its American roots. The film has an emphasis on graffiti, although breakdancing and rapping are covered to a lesser extent. The documentary captures many historical moments and is noted for its soundtrack, which includes Rammellzee's "Beat Bop" (1983), The Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (1982) as well as some Richard Wagner."--Sholem Stein
"I think it's great for the riding public to be up on the station, one cold and dreary day and see a nice white, shiny car come pulling up to the station." --member of the personnel after buffing (whitewashing) all of NYC's trains
Style Wars is an American 1983 documentary film on hip hop culture and its American roots, directed by Tony Silver and produced in collaboration with Henry Chalfant. The film has an emphasis on graffiti, although bboying and rapping are covered to a lesser extent. The film was originally aired on PBS television on January 18th, 1984, and was subsequently shown in several film festivals to much acclaim, including the Vancouver Film Festival. It also won the Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
The documentary captures and includes many historical moments of hip hop culture during its earliest days in the 1970s onward towards the early 1980s, and is noted for its soundtrack, which includes Rammellzee's "Beat Bop" (1983), The Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (1982) as well as some Richard Wagner.
The documentary shows both the young artists struggling to express themselves through their art, and their points of view on the subject of graffiti, as well as the views of then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, one-armed, now deceased graffiti writer Case/Kase 2, graffiti writer Skeme and his mother, graffiti "villain" Cap, now deceased graffiti writer Dondi, Seen and Shy 147, graffiti documentarian (and co-producer of the film) Henry Chalfant, breakdancer Crazy Legs of Rock Steady Crew, police officers, art critics, subway maintenance workers, as well as several "people on the street".
While Style Wars promoted the idea that graffiti is a form of creative expression, not every person within the film held this same belief. In fact, throughout the film we see ways in which institutions such as the government and law enforcement tried arduously to prevent graffiti in New York City. For example, the city spent a large sum of money on negative subway advertisements that portrayed graffiti as a crime. On top of this, the mayor (who at the time was Ed Koch) pushed for the building of fences, with the intent of blocking off the entrances to subways, where graffiti artists would create their work. Additionally, he had police guard dogs put into these areas to scare away those who may enter. Both Koch and The New York City Police Department rallied endlessly at an attempt to convince the city’s youth that graffiti is vandalism and that if they participated in it they would ruin their futures.
Another perspective on graffiti shown in this film is that of well known artists. Many of them state that the reason why these teens spray paint murals on the sides of buildings is because they do not have any other place to do so, not because they want to intentionally break the law. Additionally, these individuals see potential for those that are involved in the culture beyond the streets. In the same way, they appreciate the art while simultaneously disagreeing with exactly how they do it. This in a way makes them middlemen within this documentary.
'Style Wars is a work of art in its own right too, because it doesn't just record what these artists are doing, it somehow absorbs their spirit and manages to communicate it across the decades so that we can find ourselves, so many years later, in the city, understanding what made it beautiful'.
Featured graffiti artists
- Ces 157
- Min 1 (NE)
- Iz the Wiz
- DUSTER UA
- Wasp 1
- Kid 167
- rafael 666
- Shy 147
- Seen TC5
- Mare 139
- Taki 183
- Bridgette The Midget
Featured break dancers
- Siegfried's Funeral March from Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
- "8th Wonder" by The Sugarhill Gang
- "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash
- "Beat Bop" by Rammellzee and K-Rob
- "Pump Me Up" by Trouble Funk
- "The Wanderer" by Dion
- "Rockin' It" by The Fearless Four
- "Jam Hot" by Johnny Dynell
- "Feel The Heartbeat" by Treacherous Three
The digitally remastered DVD edition also contains:
- 23 minutes of outtake footage
- Commentary and interviews by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant
- Interviews with Style Wars editors Victor Kanefsky and Sam Pollard
- Art galleries by Blade, Cap, Cey, Crash, Crazy Legs, Daze, Dez, Dondi, Doze, Duro, Duster, Frosty Freeze, IZ the Wiz, Case/Kase 2, Kel First, Ken Swift, Lee, Mare139, Min One, Noc 167, Paze (Erni), Lady Pink, Quik, Rammellzee, Revolt, Sach, Seen UA, Shy 147, Skeme, Rafael 666, Tracy 168, and Zephyr
- Tributes to Dondi and Shy 147
- Guest interviews with Blade, Lee, Kel First, Seen, Tracy 168, Cap, MIN (NE), QUIK, IZ the Wiz, Fab 5 Freddy, Goldie, Guru, DJ Red Alert, and photographer Martha Cooper
2011 restoration auction
On June 9, 2011 it was announced that Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea along with actors Brad Pitt and James Franco and director Spike Jonze were donating items to an eBay auction that would raise money for restoring the film negatives for Style Wars. The Auction ended on June 11, 2011.
References in other media
DJ Mutt used quotes from the movie in his song titled "Big Lights, Big City" taken from his album Treading Water. Black Star used a clip from the movie in the intro to the song "Respiration" on the Black Star album. The Drum and Bass group Ganja Kru, composed of DJ Hype, DJ Zinc, and Pascal, used quotes from the movie in their song titled "Plague That Never Ends". Swedish band The Radio Dept. used audio samples from the film in their single "Never Follow Suit" from the album Clinging to a Scheme.