Do you remember the first time you saw a graffiti in a movie? If the answer is «Yes, in Wild Style!», I’m pretty sure this story would open your memory’s eys widely. Starting from the Bronx’s action-crime films of 70’s to the unsuspected blockbusters of 80’s, I’m gonna guide you into a “ghettocentric imagination” in which representation of graffiti in narrative american cinema plays a more ideological role than you expected. I’m not the wise-guy who teach you “what is graffiti”: I just suggest you how it functions on the screen.
What do Charles Bronson, Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson have in common?
A Graffiti background, of course!
If this is new to you, let me introduce you to the marvellous world of the american 80s, where the struggle between Reaganist forces, liberal-progressive oriented and social minorities was fought in the field of film production.
After the 60s, a decade of awareness, uprising and political turmoil, american-based minorities started to outline a particular aesthetics as a way to cope with the passage to a fragmented, money-driven and spectacle-driven society that later would be called “postmodern”. Here we encounter what Jeff Chang defines the Hip Hop Generation, an intertwined bunch of kidz that create and develop a new subculture from the ashes of gang and ghetto heritage. But what is it exactly?
Having the honor of being a penpal of PHASE 2 (who wrote the highly recommended book Style: Writing from the Underground), I opened my mind about the political consciousness from which Hip Hop culture stemmed from. Instead of a “dramatization of lost ghetto youth having no identity” PHASE 2 emphasizes that many writers came from working class families, refusing the mass-media myth of celebrity and having a very low relationship with gangs.
Otherwise in the ghettocentric film production of the 80s, you can see a desperate attempt to link together gang behavior, urban decay and graffiti writing. By the way, I’m using the term “graffiti” referring to the noxious misinterpretation and exploitation of writing aesthetic by western cultural production.
However, is also misleading to shaping the struggle into the discoursive frame “fake vs real”. In the field of representation, we should opt for a complex approach that take into account ruptures, gaps and contradictions within the so-called mainstream hegemony.
In a nutshell, the cinematographic representation of writing as graffitiscapes (or what I humbly define “toxicscapes”) has been a weapon both for conservative, progressive and counter-progressive forces. Ok, now examples are higly recommended!
In the 80s a lot of action-crime flicks were all centered on the figure of urban cops unit or vigilantes. Both in the Death Wish series (1974-1985, starring Bronson) and Forth Apache, The Bronx (1981, starring Newman), tagged trains or walls are a traumatic visual cue that emerges during violent scene triggered by gangs or latino/black characters. This tendency which – I repeat – circulated almost unseen by rupture and gaps in the frame-work of american films, reached his peak in films like Colors (1988, with a young-tough Sean Penn) where a suburban special unit of cops uses spray can in order to humiliate the gang’s juvenile offenders. Last but not least, the art of “vandalizing walls” gave inspiration to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), when Jack Nicholson (aka Joker) and his gang, break into an art gallery and write in painting “Joker was here!”. The topic of writing as weapon is also visible in what I call “spaghetti post-apocalyptic bronx”, a series of movies located on a dystopian no-man’s-land (usually the Bronx) and directed by italian b-movies directors. Must seen: pretty uncanny!
Ending, while liberal and pseudo-progressive groups tried to normalize the traumatic encounter with writing favoring its incorporation in the Fine Arts context (the result of which is the today politically-correct horizon of “Street Art”), only few films worked on an autonomus and original use of writingscape outside the ghettocentric discourse. If cult-hip hop movies like Wild Style (1983) tried at least to depict the positive and communitarian values of writing (falling in the trap of thinking that they were showing to the world the “reality” of the phenomenon), I think is good to look at such recent movies revolving around the figure of white-western graffiti artist, like Bomb The System (2002) and The Graffiti Artist (2004). They tries to articulate a more complex discourse in the post-old school era, where the sense of underground memory and community risk to vanish in order to live a solipsistic, anxiety-driven life, where graffiti loose its aesthetics as a symptom both of system and subjective collapse.
This article is written by Nexus →
B-boy, director, street hacktivist, storyteller and more than 10k contradiction. Flabbergasted by Hip Hop culture in 1998, he started a marvelous adventure in discovering the ‘nexus’ between street & visual culture, philosophy, breakdance and literature. Meanwhile, he fought several epic battles with his crew Urban Force, struggles for the foundation of a Zulu Nation chapter Italy.