Thirty Years of 'Style Wars'

Skeme, Dez and Mean 3 | Image courtesy Henry Chalfant.

In the mid-1980s, Mear One was barely into his teen years, growing up in "back lots" of Hollywood, around Sunset and Highland. He had a precocious predilection for art but no real outlet. Bused around the L.A. area for school, he would, "see all this graffiti on the streets...it looked really bad-ass and I was curious about it, but I just had no idea what you used, how you went out there and did it." Then, on a rare, rainy day in 1986, a friend brought over a VHS tape with a well-worn dub of the documentary "Style Wars" and everything changed for Mear: "it blew my mind and gave me a lot of focus to get into an art form to direct all [my] energy." He wasn't alone.

Directed by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant, "Style Wars" was originally made for PBS in 1983. On July 28th, Oscars Outdoors, in collaboration with KCRW, are hosting a 30th anniversary screening of the film, with Mear One, Chalfant, and L.A. writer Risk included as special guests. Chalfant had already documenting the New York graffiti crews of the late 70s and early 80s -- local legends (or villains, depending on your point of view) because of their elaborate subway pieces that became mobile billboards for graffiti art in that era. According to Chalfant, Silver (who passed in 2008), brought a bigger picture to the project: "He saw it as a great drama on the stage of life in New York City, with forces battling one another: the mayor and the authorities and the kids."

Its initial airing barely seemed to have any impact. Chalfant recalls "we were frustrated thinking, 'Now what? Nobody knows about it. It's not getting out!'" In an analog era, it's not surprising that even the filmmakers would have little idea of how people were slowly circulating the film underground, thanks to countless VHS dubs. Chalfant, in hindsight, now compares it to, "a wildfire under a pine forest. We couldn't know about it, there was nobody typing up figures. It just happened."

Even watching the film now, 30 years later, it's easy to appreciate how "Style Wars" would have mesmerized a generation of youth. The art is, not surprisingly, spectacular, with entire subway cars and building walls covered in vibrant aerosol colors and outrageous outlines. But more than just the aesthetics of graffiti, "Style Wars" focused on the culture of the writers themselves, the ways they organized themselves in cliques and crews and both the supportive and competitive nature of those relationships.

Ben Higa is a Los Angeles journalist who's followed the graffiti scene here since the 1980s. He credits the film for what he says "showed in the larger context, a culture," that made graffiti something more than just individual or even gang tags on a wall or bus stop, but connected it with a sense of identity and community. Higa's points are echoed by the artist Slick, who moved out to L.A. from Honolulu in the mid 1980s. "We were already messing with graf [in Hawaii]," says Slick but when he saw "Style Wars," "it definitely got me open to the possibilities of what you can do with a spray can... We recognized it was a whole culture."

After all, L.A. already had a long tradition of both graffiti and wall art that included everything from skate crew tags to so-called "cholo"-style lettering to Chicano art murals. New York aesthetics eventually began to impact L.A. graffiti style but "Style Wars" was merely one of many sources of influence. Higa argues that it was actually Chalfant's other collaboration from that era -- the 1984 book "Subway Art," co-written with Martha Cooper -- that had a more direct impact on how L.A. writers approach their craft. "That was somewhat something like the graffiti Bible," Higa explains, adding, "you could see the real influence of the "Subway Art" book on the west side...the 3-D, the design within the letters."

Where "Style Wars" became most influential was less about the specific "styles" of graffiti itself but rather, what those styles represented. Mear One suggests that the film influenced him and his friends, "to re-define ourselves as the 'West Coast.' We already were doing [graffiti]. We have roots in it, but what's [our] difference?" For an early generation of L.A. writers, that meant establishing their own "bombing yards" -- the now-defunct Belmont Tunnel and the old Pan Pacific Park became legendary -- or realizing that while L.A. had no subway system to "go all-city" with, the Rapid Transit District (RTD) buses were open game. In Robert "Wisk" Alva and Robert "Relax" Reiling's "The History of Los Angeles Graffiti Art, Vol. 1," they include a remarkable chapter about how the constantly tagging of RTD buses forced the District to abandon the buses' once iconic "Tri-Stripe" color scheme because attempts to remove graffiti inadvertently washed out the buses' painted strips as well. As Higa puts it, "Style Wars," "Subway Art" and other mid-80s documentations demonstrated to L.A. writers, "the potential of what the [spray] can could do. Once that was realized, it was being done in peoples' backyard, alley ways, empty lots, and of course the freeway walls, hundreds of miles of that."

Skeme, Dez and Mean 3 | Image courtesy Henry Chalfant
Skeme, Dez and Mean 3 | Image courtesy Henry Chalfant
Image from Caltrans (http://www.dot.ca.gov)
Image from Caltrans

It is a remarkable testament to "Style Wars" that a film that was so hyper-specific about its time and place -- New York City of the early 1980s -- would have such a transformative effect on inspiring graffiti artists globally. Chalfant shares that even if he and Silver thought their film had originally flopped, within a few years, "I began to get feedback, when kids started writing me letters from other parts of the country and from Europe, and even as far away as Cape Town and northern Australia...saying how they had wished they had grown up in the South Bronx, I thought, 'Yeah, something's going on!'"

For Mear One, who last watched the film again last year, he describes "Style Wars" as, "a timeless movie [that] transcends the look and the very specific conditions that were concocted in the situation out there in New York." Graffiti, he says, is about an attitude spurred by social conditions that's infinitely adaptable, regardless of where or when: "it's like graffiti was developed out of necessity, the lack of beauty and creativity and expression in the ghetto, in the hood. Wherever these similar conditions exist, this type of behavior and philosophy will thrive."

KCRW's DJ Anthony Valdez has a tribute mix inspired by "Style Wars."

There is a restoration drive to help preserve the film's original prints.


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