With his dexterous 2007 documentary "Bomb It," Los Angeles filmmaker Jon Reiss sought the backstory and the cultural path of graffiti, and the artists behind it. "We didn't call ourselves graffiti artists," said the late Rammellzee in the film. "Society called us that. We called ourselves bombers." Reiss also pulled in perspective from New York's civic authority that squelched it, and willing to talk about it.
Like all documentaries that cover aerosol artists from the States, there's plenty of in-your-face attitude rebelling against urban decay, justifying the art as a statement that bombs society ills. What made the film stand out from other documentaries were the segments on international artists, influenced by the U.S., who were shaping a nationalistic style.
There is more of that in the new "Bomb It 2," filmed by Reiss as a one-man crew globetrotting to meet with artists in Australia, the Middle East, and Asia. "Many countries visited for 'Bomb It 2' didn't have much of a street art scene at all when the original 'Bomb It' was shot back in 2004-2005," said the press notes.
The film shows how the letter form of graffiti is joined by paint, stencil, and wheat-paste works by trained graphic designers and artists. It doesn't reveal anything new about the motive for graffiti, and doesn't attempt to define the derivatives that the growing portfolio is demonstrating.
Art by Copenhagen artist ASH is closer in tradition to murals responding to architectural scale, while in the Middle East, West Bank artist Alazzh rebels against putting any art on a wall to hide the "ugliness" of apartheid. In Tel Aviv, Foma seeks out walls where people won't mind the political messages in her portraits washed with color and emotions.
In the case of some cities, the public space is under strict government control. In Singapore, Zero calls its graffiti culture, which began in the early 2000s, a paradox of his culture city. "It's a challenge to be out in the streets and not get caught," says Zero. "The difference is the size of the country. We are do small. How far can we run away?" His friend and working partner, Killer Gerbil, quietly explains how on the first arrest, you will be fined. The second will get you jail time, or if caught for the third time, the sentence is caning with a thick rattan.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, Darbotz escapes his day in advertising to throw up his alter ego in the form of the monochrome "Squid Master," a contrast to the color in the streets, he says. He also applies his design studies, finding a connection to his street works. "Semiotic explains that people can identify your art without putting your signature on it," says Darbotz.
With this focus, there are richer tales in "Bomb It 2," and the film may be telling us that there is a different urgency in the visual messages found abroad. Graffiti from the inner core of the West are statements that question everything. The international work, and the artists who create it, are reflective and the work seems to be seeking specific answers.
A clip from "Bomb It 2" edited for KCET, with Australian Andy Mac I Courtesy Jon Reiss:
Though the city isn't mentioned in "Bomb It 2", the filmmaker stated that he started his original hunting in Los Angeles. "Very early on, we connected with the L.A. graffiti scene, because we're from L.A. and met some really helpful people in a couple of other places," said Reiss in a 2008 interview with the New York Daily News. "Some of it was research in terms of conventional research, some of it was research we did during the process of making the film, and then some of it was just finding and looking at work that inspired us."
While no Los Angeles premiere has been scheduled, "Bomb It 2" makes an online debut, while ending a successful Kickstarter campaign. As screenings across international date lines begin, we caught up with the filmmaker.
In the time since "Bomb It," graffiti and street art has changed as an accepted form of art. To you, is street art fighting to keep it's cred, or can it find a home in the mainstream?
Jon Reiss: It's both, all and everything in between. Of course there is more acceptance now, but still incredible crackdowns in the U.S. and across the world. It varies person to person who still each have their own motivations -- and it varies city to city, country to country. For instance in the Middle East (and the whole Mediterranean), there is a strong tradition of writing on the wall and people use it for all kinds of things. So in Tel Aviv I was amazed at the range of content and motivations -- many regular people write on walls to communicate a message. So it's a huge mix, and refreshing because of that.
Was there a sense that some street artists will always avoid being in a gallery?
I would say that there probably are (graffiti) writers who will always avoid being in a gallery. But eventually that will probably stop at some point. In the states, enforcement is so intense that you have guys in their 30s and 40s who have been arrested a few times. They have kids, etcetera, and they really have to think "Is it worth it?" Sometimes those people turn to galleries. Other times they turn to something else entirely.
As a filmmaker, and educator at Cal Arts, has observing images that are "sampled" in street art influence your teachings in filmmaking?
I wouldn't say that in particular, ergo, the sampling. I was already pretty familiar with sampling culture well before "Bomb It." But many street artists and writers are very entrepreneurial, and that has been very informative regarding my work with filmmakers and artists, regarding building careers and distribution and marketing, and that infuses my teaching and filmmaking.
When you began thinking of doing "Bomb It 2," was it to add stories, or did something change that needed more documentation?
I wanted to explore how graffiti had spread and morphed in places you wouldn't expect it or where most people wouldn't expect it -- Singapore/South East Asia, the West Bank -- as well as to go to places we couldn't afford to in "Bomb It." (Australia). Street art and people's motivation to write on walls fascinates me, and with "Bomb It" I clearly wasn't done exploring my fascination. We'll see if that is done now!
Is Los Angeles a busy enough city to be the center of "Bomb It 3" someday?
Well for sure there is plenty, and we have a rough cut of an L.A. version from all the footage of "Bomb It," but we never had the resources to finish it. Now it would need to be updated. So if someone comes along and says "I have to do that L.A. 'Bomb It' film," I'm all for it. We also have a rough cut of a Sao Paolo film. But I really think "Bomb It 3," if it happens, will be crowd sourced from around the world. I recently met a filmmaker from South Africa who does amazing short films with street art throughout Africa, so you never know!
Bomb It 2
A Hybrid Cinema production. Produced and Directed by Jon Reiss.
Above: Darbotz alter-ego, the cumi (squid) represents his response to the tough demands of existence in Jakarta. Photo courtesy Hybrid Cinema