By Sarah Boslaugh
February 15, 2009
Few people are neutral on the subject of graffiti. One the one hand you have the practitioners who see themselves as everything from the true artists of the urban landscape to revolutionaries reclaiming public space on behalf of the people. On the other, you have property owners and government officials who see graffiti as vandalism and those who create it as at best public nuisances and at worse as criminals.
One reason graffiti is such a volatile issue is because it touches on many fundamental questions of urban life. What constitutes public space? Who gets to decide how it will be used? Is advertising in public spaces a form of pollution? Can graffiti achieve the status of art, and as such should it be protected from defacement by other graffiti artists? What constitutes a work of art anyway, and who gets to decide? Does spraying your name on a wall constitute a significant political act, or would such energies be better directed elsewhere?
Jon Reiss’s 2008 documentary Bomb It raises these questions and more, presenting a wide sampling of graffiti art from around the world, and a variety of viewpoints relating to graffiti. He includes interviews with everyone from first-generation graffiti artists to academic theorists: segments shot in South Africa, Brazil, Europe and Japan are particularly useful in broadening the discussion. The main weakness of this documentary is the lack of integration or analysis: most often viewpoints are simply juxtaposed with the result that the documentary acts primarily as a collage of statements and images to be taken at face value, with no attempt on the part of the filmmaker to verify them or inquire further.
Bomb It is clearly in the pro-graffiti camp, as signaled by its tag line: “Street Art is Revolution.” Reiss does give some screen time to anti-graffiti voices, but the preponderance of the film presents graffiti as fun, daring, revolutionary, and beautiful, while the anti-graffiti camp not only gets less time to state their case, but are filmed in a manner which often makes them come off as scolds and killjoys. Ironically, the words of the graffiti artists are often contradicted by the ugly scrawls evident on the walls behind them: if anyone is free to write and paint on public walls, there’s no reason to expect that the artistically untalented will decline to participate.
The pro-graffiti stance of Bomb It may have been influenced by aesthetics as well as politics: taggers appeal to everyone’s inner child (until your own property gets tagged, at least), and many present themselves in a colorful manner which makes for interesting footage. It’s no surprise that Cornbread (the Philadelphia resident often cited as the father of modern graffiti) plays to the camera far more blatantly than the distinguished academic George Kelling (co-author of the “broken windows” hypothesis that visual signs of vandalism create a climate of fear and will prompt further vandalism), or that a midnight expedition of hooded taggers is more fun to watch than a city official being interviewed in his office.
There’s nothing wrong with a documentary taking sides: indeed, it’s almost an expectation these days. The best approach to viewing Bomb It is to sit back and enjoy the ride, while bearing in mind that the tour presented to you has a definite point of view which is hardly universal. If you live in a city, you have should have plenty of your own experiences with graffiti to balance against the viewpoints presented here; if not, better to reserve judgment until you acquire that experience, or at least consider a broader selection of opinions.
Reiss begins his overview of graffiti with Cornbread in 1970’s Philadelphia, then follows it through the 1980’s in New York City (the city and era which many associate most strongly with graffiti) and up to the current day, with brief excursions back to cave paintings and Alexander the Great. He takes an inclusive approach: scribbles with a black marker are juxtaposed with elaborate and colorful painted murals, and articulate interview subjects are interspersed among the inane and trendy.
Bomb It also presents views from several cities in Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. The similarities and differences with the U.S. are striking: in France Reiss interviews both disaffected young men who echo American taggers in both their spray painted styles and their motivations (the racism of French society), and the older artist “Blek le Rat” who has developed a striking stencil art style similar to that of British artist Banksy. As in the U.S., some embrace graffiti as art or political protest, while others consider it vandalism. There are differences also: in Cape Town, graffiti became a means of political protest during the Apartheid years and remains common today. In Barcelona, there are no laws against painting on city walls, and colorful murals have become a well-known feature of the city.
In a few countries, graffiti has become mainstream, with former taggers receiving commissions to execute murals on public property or to create billboards for advertisers. Graffiti-inspired art also became chic for a period in the 1980’s, when it was sold in commercial galleries at gallery prices. This sparked a debate among graffiti artists which continues to this day: since accepting commissions or selling one’s work in a gallery requires at least temporarily abandoning the stance of outlaw, does profiting from your work mean losing your street cred? Should such work even be considered graffiti, even if it is made to order and serves governmental or commercial interests?
Taken as a worldwide sampler of graffiti styles and attitudes toward it, Bomb It is an excellent documentary which is sure to spark further discussion. On the down side, the film’s organization is unnecessarily random at times, and the steady stream of self-aggrandizing taggers and their justifications (everything from “there’s nothing to do” to “rebellion is the cornerstone of our society”) becomes tiresome. DVD extras include a commentary track with director Reiss and producer Tracy Wares, a 14-minute “behind the scenes” documentary, two extended interviews, and three extended time-lapse sequences which document the creation of murals by Kid Acne (England), Ise and Koyok (Brazil) and Shinzentomotel (Japan).
Directed by Jon Reiss
Color, 2008, 93 Minutes