Style Wars

A documentary that exposes the rich growing subculture of hip-hop that was developing in New York City in the late '70s and early '80s, specifically focusing on graffiti art and and breakdancing.

Arts, Culture, & Sports, Democracy & Human Rights, New York as character

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About the Film

Style Wars is regarded as the indispensable document of New York street culture of the early ’80s; it’s the filmic record of a golden age of youthful creativity that exploded into the world from a city in crisis. The film captured the look and feel of New York’s ramshackle subway system as the graffiti writers’ public playground, battleground and spectacular artistic canvas. Opposing them by every means possible were Mayor Edward Koch, the police, and the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. Meanwhile MCs, DJs and b-boys rocked the city with new sounds and new moves that redefined street corner breakdance battles as performance art. New York’s legendary kings of graffiti and b-boys own a special place in the hip hop pantheon. Style Wars was awarded the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival.

Film In Context

The origins of post-war graffiti have been historically traced to the streets of South Philadelphia during the 1960s. The first tags featured simple signatures applied on walls and mass transit buses. Given Philadelphia’s proximity to New York City, in particular key transportation hubs such as the George Washington Bridge and Bruckner Expressway, it wasn’t long before young people in Washington Heights and the South Bronx began recognizing this creative scribble on interstate trucks. During the early ‘70s teens from such neighborhoods found their way to the yards and layups that stored the MTA’s subways. 

Within a short eight to ten years, bubble letters gave way to elaborate lettering styles, design concepts, and messaging. Helped in part by a fiscal crisis that crippled the New York City economy in the late ‘70s and saw the most basic maintenance service severely reduced, thousands of teens took up graffiti as their vocation. By the early ‘80s photography became the preferred documentation tool for writers. Combined with sophisticated meeting spaces such as the Writer’s Bench, the graffiti community grew in social complexity and artistic vigor. Dynamic graffiti crews comprised of racially and economically diverse young people battled stylistically on the subways’ interior and exterior surfaces. This period also marked a pronounced effort by NYC elected officials to contextualize graffiti vandalism through PSA campaigns on the subway and throughout the city.

In 1990, under the auspices of David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, new cleaning technology paired with a zero-tolerance maintenance policy successfully eradicated the subway system of graffiti. A few lone holdover crews attempted to keep it alive but to no avail. A new generation of graffiti writers descended on streets, highways and freight trains determined to keep the culture active. By the mid-‘90s graffiti video crews and graffiti zines surfaced, providing new platforms and serving new audiences across the globe. By the early 2000s graffiti could be found on fonts, clothing, computer graphics, and video games, ushering in a new era of creative entrepreneurship.