Judge Daryl Loomis cannot advocate bombing, but he'll look the other way.
Street art is revolution.
It's been called a lot of things: tagging, bombing, graffiti, typographical terrorism, trash, or a sign of how our society has sunk. Whatever you call it and whatever you think about it, people have been writing on the wall for millennia, and street art in its modern form has been around for nearly half a century, inundating itself into worldwide popular culture. There are many who would never call graffiti art under any circumstances, but the meaningful work and the philosophies of the artists making the work across the globe tell a different story. Director Jon Reiss, in his documentary Bomb It, uses these stories to craft an interesting and compelling argument for the legitimacy of this underground and often maligned art form.
Starting us in a natural place, Reiss takes us first to Philadelphia to meet Cornbread, whose tag became legendary and who is the acknowledged (but arguable) innovator of modern graffiti. He walks us through his old stomping grounds to show us the first wall he ever tagged, now a chain link fence. Like many of the subjects to come, Cornbread is an intelligent, charismatic figure whose presence, like Afrika Bambaataa or Jazzy Jay in the history of hip-hop, lends a sense of tradition and history to the form. From there, we travel to meet some of the other pioneers, including former MC for Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One, whose work in music came after an early career as an underground artist. His noted eloquence serves as very good commentary throughout the film.
After seeing the New York subway stations as a great moving museum, we travel across the globe to the many countries where street art has taken hold. In Paris, cameras number into the tens of thousands, trained on walls to catch the vandals. In Madrid, street art has risen to a glorified level…as long as it's good. The government makes a distinction between legal (good enough) art and illegal (not good enough) in an arbitrary fashion. In South Africa, street writing played an important role in the struggle against Apartheid and, today, in the tin shanties where many still live, the street art may not be "authorized," but it is a welcome splash of color on their otherwise depressing grey walls. These are the most compelling parts of Reiss's film, and hearing from the people doing it drives his points home.
It must be said that the film is convincing to me because I'm already with Reiss on the subject. I've spent plenty of time with people who make it and some of the most abstract and affecting pieces of art I've ever seen have been street murals. I look at things like this as a good break from the banal homogeny of modern cities, one that should be encouraged and fostered more than criminalized. Those coming at the film from a negative stance will no doubt have a more mixed experience with Bomb It. Nobody in the film argues that tagging houses and schools is good, but the dissenting argument is not given much weight or coherence. Between the corporate shills who prefer to stamp out graffiti by giving little kids gift certificates from Little Caesar's Pizza for tattling on writers and the vigilantes who mount illegal street cameras and chase people away with bats, there isn't much sympathy allowed to them.
Docurama's DVD of Bomb It is as strong as the film. Though the film uses variable video and film stock with a number of animated sequences and archival footage, the image is very good. The new footage is perfectly rendered and the old looks fairly good. The transfer is clean all the way through. So, too, with the 5.1 surround mix. The dialogue is clear in the center channel with the remaining speakers used for the solid fun, hip-hop, and punk soundtrack. The extras include an engaging commentary with Reiss and cinematographer/producer Tracy Wares, some extended time-lapse sequences of the creation of some of the art, extended scenes, and outtakes.
If given the choice between bland concrete walls in my local park and those same walls covered with art that random people made, I'd take the colorful one any day of the week. My sympathies lay much more with artists trying to make their work than with stockbrokers trying to maintain their property values. As such, Bomb It is a very effective look at the history of street art in many of its forms. Case dismissed.
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