Judge Katie Herrell wants to know how they paint those four-foot words onto the sides of bridges. But she doesn't want to know badly enough to watch this again.
"One of your most personal possessions is your signature."
This documentary is more art lesson than art show. It's a dictionary of terms applicable only to graffiti art. It's a who's who of the graffiti movement in San Francisco. It's a lesson in doing what you love and damning the consequences. It's about standing up for your craft—but hiding your face. It's about making bare walls come awash in color, but channeling D.W. Griffith when putting those walls on film. It's about throwing around a handful of dirt and calling everything gritty.
Facts of the Case
This documentary details San Francisco's graffiti art movement over the last twenty years. Through interviews with the prolific graffiti artists, or "writers," of this time period—most hiding their identity—this film explores the different styles and techniques of graffiti art (including east coast versus west coast styles), the importance of "crews" or teams/"gangs" of painters, the personal fulfillment writers get from their art, and their frustration with the laws that make their craft illegal and the police who enforce those laws.
The first thing I noticed about this film was its lack of color. I always thought graffiti was about adding color where there was none. I also thought it was about vandalism and punk kids. This film was out to educate me…to see that my first assumption was only a fraction correct and my second was just plain stereotypical.
Apparently the color in this film was something I had to earn. First I had to get down the basics of graffiti art starting with "tagging," or signing whatever "nom de plume" a writer chose for himself (or herself, but mostly himself). This was introduced by a group of boys slapping their sig onto the side of a bus, or the inside walls and ceiling. They looked like punk kids to me. One woman complained that she asked the kids to stop because the markers were making her sick; they swore at her. But really, I just couldn't appreciate that these boys all had their own signature style and that you could tell a lot about a writer (where they came from, what "crew" they hung with, etc.) from their style. This I learned.
Then the lessons became more advanced. These lessons were carried out by various long-term artists who we meet by their signature name: Cycle, Crayone, Revok, Twick, etc. They explained the more intricate styles of graffiti, the most advanced of which are "burns," or large pieces that are towering block letters or images. I liked these pieces; they had lots of color. But the artists who weren't afraid to show their faces—and bravo to them because the bandanna clad writers looked like they belonged on CNN—weren't that young. Some of these guys were just reminiscing, but most were still out there at night laying down their art. They might still be punks, whatever that means, but they aren't kids.
What was great about these lessons and the writers is that they aren't clouded by back stories. Back stories are for feature films. You can't just show kids painting walls in a feature film, you have to say that their parents beat them, or that they have just impregnated their girlfriend, or they are trying to decide between Harvard and Berkeley. But this documentary is about stealing paint, scouting abandoned walls, and clashing with the opposing crews and trying to sabotage their work. Furthermore, the love the writers have for their craft is obvious. These guys spend hours sketching and scouting before they do large burns. Their artistic talent is undeniable; their canvas just isn't mainstream. These artists think (or have themselves convinced) that they are making their city a more beautiful place to live. This film has plenty of drama, but it is truthful and only related to the topic at hand, writing graffiti.
That said, I would have liked to see a little more scouting for abandoned walls and a little more live-action graffiti shots: How exactly does one paint a four-foot tall word on the side of a bridge? The interviews and the terminology were fascinating (maybe only because I was a complete neophyte when it comes to graffiti), but these kids are running from the cops, sneaking out of houses, and apparently even getting killed in the act. I needed a little more color in this respect.
I also found the camera work a little odd. I understand that the majority of graffiti writing is done at night, but the whole film seemed a little…gray. San Francisco isn't lacking on the color spectrum, but I don't think I saw any blues or greens that weren't created by paint. And the old-movie reel element wasn't appealing. This film was about the last twenty years and created in the last five; there's really no reason why it should seem as though the projectionist fell asleep in the back room.
The music definitely helped bring the piece into modern day. There are some montage scenes where shots of covered walls ebbed on the screen to a pulsating beat in the background. This is a great way to showcase a lot of amazing artwork in a short time. And the addition of rap music definitely upped the adrenalin and added to the suspense—and there should be suspense. Graffiti writing is illegal and a felony in SF.
There are more minutes of "Special Features," than there are of actual documentary. This is good and bad. Good in that we meet some very interesting writers, including several females and one writer who definitely uses his art to spread an anti-capitalist message. It's bad in that some of the material is redundant. An accompanying 50-page booklet featuring writers and their art is just a paper version of the film, with quite a few typos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Certainly, I understand why there aren't more live-action graffiti shots. Graffiti is done under the cover of darkness. Setting up film equipment, including bright film lights, on a deserted alley in the middle of the night is like giving the police your GPS coordinates before heading out. And for the same reason, I understand why many of the writers didn't want to show their face. Some of them are still extremely active in the world of graffiti and have spent enough time facing ugly stone walls they can't even spit on safely.
If you know nothing about graffiti, and are interested in changing that, this film is for you. If you know about graffiti, maybe the New York graffiti which has had some more mainstream publicity, this film is for you. If your friend or enemy (real or representational) happens to be in this film, it's for you. But if you want to see some sick artwork up close and personal, some hard-hitting police-on-punk drama, or simply some beautiful San Francisco scenery from a new perspective, this film isn't for you.
Guilty. It is certainly true that "One of your most personal possessions is your signature." But if your second most personal possession—and valued possession—is your time, then you'll want to make sure this movie is for you before embarking.
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