Tag: "seen"

Style Wars | hip-hop & graffiti documentary

Filming began in 1981, following on from director Henry Chalfant’s

documentation of the early New York hip-hop and graffiti scene (best

demonstrated in his and Martha Cooper’s ‘Subway Art’ book – something we’ll return to later on Trashfilter). Chalfant linked up with Tony Silver and between them they filmed and collated over 30 hours of raw footage. The formative era of b-boying, with Rock Steady and the Dynamic Rockers is captured, but it’s the interviews with the graf writers that makes this so essential to me.

If you’ve ever picked up a can of paint or a marker, you owe it to yourself to study the film in full. The now-legendary clips of Skeme and his mother, the exploits of Seen and Duster, the wars with Cap and the MPC crew, Min One and Iz laying it down… It’s still just as invigorating to watch now as it was back in the ‘80s.

Documentaries come and go over the years and there have certainly been some fantastic efforts when it comes to documenting hip-hop culture. But nothing has knocked ‘Style Wars’ from its well-deserved pedestal.

Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver were forward-thinking enough to start

cataloguing and recording the pioneering days of a worldwide phenomenom that will outlive all of us today. As an open-eyed 8 year old, I couldn’t

necessarily relate to what I was seeing on the screen at the time, but I knew I wanted to find out more. Channel 4’s infamous screening one Christmas in the UK was carefully dubbed and shared until an official VHS release of ‘Style Wars’ appeared in the early 1990s. I made do with that copy until the

excellent reissue on DVD courtesy of Plexifilm in 2003. And now there are rumours of an HD version being created if funding can be found.

The excellent Style Wars website, designed and built by the legendary Mare 139 (who also features prominently in the film) was the first graffiti-themed website I’d seen where the design was as carefully considered as the content: the pieces and photos look great on there.

Tony Silver sadly passed away in 2008, but his name will live with future generations through his work on Style Wars. Henry Chalfant is still very much around, often attending exhibitions and shows, proving that he’s very much ingrained within the threads of hip-hop. His photographic partner Martha Cooper is also still shooting and writing, as her own ‘Hip Hop Files’ book will attest.

I had the opportunity to see some of Henry’s original prints (and sit down to a big screen showing of ‘Style Wars’) when in Paris for the ‘Born In The Streets’ exhibition. Judging by the crowd, the

magnetism won’t ever end.

Make sure you take some time to watch the film, whether you’re fully immersed in hip-hop or just have

the yearning to see a well-made and intelligent portrayal of one of the most exciting subcultures to have ever emerged.

‘Né Dans La Rue’ Fondation Cartier graffiti exhibition, Paris

“This exhibition traces the origins of the graffiti movement while offering a panorama of the diversity of contemporary writing”. A Cartier-backed history of graffiti? With the right people involved? Really?

Casting my ill-conceived preconceptions about fashion houses trying to connect with youth culture aside, once I’d seen the photos from this exhibition begin to appear online, I knew I wanted to go and see it for myself. The days of wanting to go and see graffiti in gallery spaces have long gone for me, but the opportunity to go and see some genuine artifacts from the pioneering days of New York’s graf scene was too good to resist. A quick Friday night hop on the Eurostar (courtesy of my good lady) gave us a full Saturday morning to spend checking the exhibition out.

Approaching the exhibition space from Raspail Metro station, it’s pretty clear you’re in the right area: the front of the building is surrounded in wooden hoardings covered in graffiti. Whilst that’s all well and good, it was the ‘graffiti taxonomy’ (see Evan Roth’s site for some great background shots) on the glass facade that stood out. Individual letters from a wide range of different writers in Paris, showcasing the diversity of tag styles in the same geographic region. It reminded me a little of Rammellzee and Phase Two’s explorations into letterforms, but without the scary costumes and complicated technospeak.

Once you’ve paid your €6.50 and go into the grounds, you’re confronted with a massive chrome dub (courtesy of Amaze) and a walk around the back of the glass showroom reveals a hut with Seen throw-ups, a Shepard Fairey wall and a couple of other bits. All good, so far…

Upon entering the exhibition hall, a friendly-but-firm voice told me ‘no photographs please’. I think my speechless expression said enough: you can’t claim to be presenting graffiti in its truest form without allowing complete freedom to let people document it themselves. Luckily, it wasn’t very difficult to take a few low-key pictures as we walked around – the staff were busy monitoring a class of schoolchildren, so it was pretty easy to get a few point-n-shoot shots. But this was one severe black mark to the organisers, especially considering I’d held out from buying the exhibition catalogue in the UK (Magma sell it for a fiver less) so that I could buy it from the ‘official’ vendor.

The ground floor has a selection of large freestanding walls, with art from a variety of different writers and artists on there. A couple of things stood out (such as the Jon One sculpture-framed piece and the Delta wall), but it was clear the downstairs section was where the real treats were being kept. In the first room, there was a cool handstyle animation on loop (by Evan Roth and Katsu), facing a wall with two nice Part One pieces on. Seen’s recreated ‘Hand Of Doom’ piece filled another wall, but the true gold came in the form of two exhibition cases with original sketches and blackbook pieces in them. Dondi and Tracy 168’s sketches looked as good in the flesh as they did in the books. Seen’s original sketch and photos of the ‘Hand Of Doom’ wholecar was pretty exciting to see, having looked at that piece again and again in ‘Subway Art’ over the past 20 years. Henry Chalfant’s contribution was great to see: a wall of photographic prints, featuring both well-known subway panels and a couple I hadn’t seen before. There was also a large presentation case with a transit worker’s uniform (as worn by Seen when painting trains) and a door with lots of classic NYC writers’ tags scrawled on.

Walking past a cool/weird Blade piece (a list of writers who’d died, bordered by mirrored walls and tags), the next room had a large projection of ‘Style Wars’/’Wild Style’-era footage, surrounded by some vintage canvas works by Futura, Quik and Lee. The highlights of this room were the Lady Pink/Lee denim jacket and the ‘Aboveground’ gallery poster, following on from the MTA’s anti-graffiti campaign. Walking out of this room takes you down a tag-battered catacomb and back into the main room. Exhibition over? Not quite.

As I pushed my way past over-zealous kids on the stairway, I went up onto the first floor bookshop, where I was quite literally blown away. I had to stop in my tracks to take in the comprehensive selection of graffiti books. They had easily over 100 different books there, ranging from just-released tomes through to various exhibition catalogues and classic publications. I’d only intended to purchase the official guide to the exhibition (which I still did), but also ended up with the Blade monograph, a signed copy of the ‘Seen City’ catalogue from his 2007 show – and the recently-released ‘All City Writers’ book. I also found ‘Stations Of The Elevated’ on DVD, which was an unexpected surprise. Posters were reasonably priced at €6 and everything was properly browsable before purchase. The best collection of graffiti literature I’ve seen in one place, for certain. With our arms weighed down with books, we left and went to see what Colette was saying, en-route back to Gare du Nord.

This is by no means the comprehensive history of graffiti that it promises, and some of the modern pieces are a little questionable in terms of relevance, but it was fully worth visiting. We thought we’d snuck in to see it before the planned closing date (which was originally set to be November 29th 2009), but they’ve just extended the duration until January 10th 2010, so plan a weekend to Paris before it finishes and have a look for yourself.

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. 261, Boulevard Raspail, Paris 75014
More information: http://fondation.cartier.com

Joseph Rivera ‘Vandal Squad: Inside The NYC Transit Police Department 1984-2004’

I wasn’t initially convinced that buying a copy of this book would be in graffiti’s best interests: putting money into the pockets of someone who did his best to eradicate New York of graf was probably the opposite of what I wanted to do. Once I’d obtained a gratis copy and read through it, I thought I’d give it a quick review so you can make your own mind up on whether it’s for you.

Half of the appeal of writing for me was the accompanying folklore and events that surrounded the act of painting. Hearing that so-and-so got chased out of a particular train yard or another guy escaped police capture by hiding in a rubbish bin was all part of the reason I wanted ‘in’. But hearing these stories from the other side of the law does make for interesting reading, regardless of whether you’re an advocate of graffiti or dead-against it.

Rivera was one of the early members of the NYC Police Department’s Vandal Squad in the 1980s: any criminal activity that took place within the NY Transit system would be investigated by these guys, leading to the arrests of many of graf’s most infamous writers. He worked with the Squad through the ’80s and early ’90s, racking up a tally chart of large proportions. So, instead of a boring account of police procedures, you get a fairly unique insight with stories including plenty of names you’ll recognise: Seen, Revs, Deck, O’Clock, Crack (AKA Fat Joe), Skuf… Endorse it or not, it’s interesting reading.

One of the most interesting aspects of the accounts is that Rivera doesn’t take a disrespectful tone about the writers. Instead of mocking them and making them sound stupid, he often shows an appreciation for their artwork and also lays the story straight on the infamous ratting-out rumours that spread around when high profile writers got busted. In particular, the Cope and Revs sections are pretty revealing – and the fact that Rivera openly admits that some of the most-wanted writers were never apprehended gives you a feeling that most of this isn’t glorified storytelling.

In all, if you ever had an interest in the NYC Subway scene, fancy something a little different to read and want to see some decent photos (including examples from Jamel Shabazz and Peter Sutherland) that you may not have seen before, this is worth picking up.

Data time: it’s published by powerHouse Books, it costs about $30, there are 168 pages and it’s all rounded off with an interesting message from Cope on the back cover.