Stations of the Elevated (1981)
Perhaps underrated, when you sit down at a roundtable discussion with insiders, Stations of the Elevated is literally elevated as of the great graffiti films, hands-down. Manfred Kirchheimer’s 1981 documentary about NYC graffiti perhaps is canonized by the fact that it was released at such a ripe time, before Wild Style and Style Wars, but we lean on the jazz and soul soundtrack that made it feel like a film of high art importance. Many claim that this was the first documentary of the graffiti movement in NYC, but more importantly it captured a city at an artistic height, untamed and youthful and strong.
Style Wars (1983)
Style Wars has a bit of everything for a documentary on the era: hip-hop, b-boys and of course, a lot of graffiti. Henry Chalfant, who would go on to release the seminal book Subway Art with Martha Cooper a year later, served as a producer on the film to director Tony Silver, but what is most important to note is that this film was a convergence of a unique moment in NYC history. This was also made famous by then NYC mayor Ed Koch’s, let’s say less than positive feelings about graff but also the words from the writers themselves. It was awarded the Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, so it was highly regarded since its release. Start here.
Wild Style (1983)
The same year, director Charlie Ahearn released the feature film, Wild Style. But a key here is that the film itself was made in 1981, when the likes of Fab Five Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, The Rock Steady Crew and the like were still very much at the early stages of their own career. That this was the first “hip-hop” feature is essential in understanding how early it was made. By 1983, it might have seemed late, but at the time of its making, this was real underground culture getting a cinematic look. Lee as ZORO sort of sets the stage of how graffiti fame worked, but also how the culture was commidfied by dealers and companies alike.
While maybe not overtly a graffiti film, Dennis Hopper’s return to directing with Colors, nearly two decades after Easy Rider, saw him portray the gang wars in neighborhoods of Los Angeles, featuring plenty of graffiti in the process. A highlight, or companion to the film is Dennis Hopper: Colors, the Polaroids, a brilliant book of Hopper’s polaroids of LA gang graffiti that he shot in the process of making the film, an essential of history of understanding graffiti in a cultural context that went beyond the typical subway car art that was taken into the gallery world some years before.
Is Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s groundbreaking mid-1990s film about graffiti? No, but goddamn is it not the defining film of the decade and all the subculture that would exist before, during and after. What would become the defining fashion brand of the era, Supreme, or the birth of a new downtown NYC scene that would lead to the careers of Dash Snow and the IRAK crew, Kids is like the visual centerpiece of what the 1990s came to define; graffiti, anti-authoritarian behavior, street art, skateboarding, hedonism and youthful rebellion. It captures a spirit of NYC that the city itself continues to try to reimagine itself as; a city of art and rule-breaking.
Downtown 81 (2000)
It seemed like the turn of the century was a ripe time for graffiti films, but this one, Downtown 81, was actually shot in 1980-81 and directed by Edo Bertoglio and written and produced by the late and legendary Glenn O'Brien. Where Style Wars and Wild Style depicted a particular part of hip-hop and graffiti culture, this film was more about a post-punk, streetwise and street culture style that informed high fashion for decades to come. Starring Basquiat and featuring all the mainstays of early downtown NYC. But the key? "The production bought Jean his first real art supplies and gave him his first real studio, which he lived in," Gina Nanni said,the widow of O'Brien. A piece of history.
Dark Days (2000)
Another film that wasn’t just about graffiti but helps create a wider scope on some of the more underground parts of the culture. British filmmaker Matt Singer shot Dark Days in the famed Freedom Tunnel on the train lines of upper Manhattan. It gave a bit of an understanding for where graffiti was painted, and in this case, one of the holy Meccas of graffiti from around the world, and a sense of NYC that was rarely spoken of in the 1990s during Mayor Guilani’s push to get homeless out of Manhattan. The DJ Shadow soundtrack continues to be one of the best scores ever in a documentary.
The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001)
This is a majorly underrated 16-min short, made by experimental filmmaker Matt McCormick and narrated by director and conceptual artist, Miranda July. The film “makes the tongue-in-cheek argument that municipal efforts by Portland, Oregon to mask and erase graffiti is an important new movement in modern art stemming from the repressed artistic desires of city workers.” One of the reasons we call this a top-10 moment in graffiti films is that its a reminder of the potential for humor and fun in graffiti, also a genre that even the most contemporary and experimental of artists can play with. It’s use of the contemporary art lexicon and robust language makes it one of the more fun mockumentaries of the 21st century.
What is brilliant about Infamy is that filmmaker Doug Pray has made a career of documenting subcultures with the care of someone who truly understands the historical precedence before them. What Infamy captures is the danger of graffiti, the lengths and limits graffiti artists at the first part of the 21st century were willing to go for to gain notoriety and fame in this particular art form. What’s more real is the addictive and obsessive nature of graffiti; long before social media and shared culture, graffiti was its own share and social sharing paradigm. This film is ahead of its time because it predates over-sharing and yet its the most concise and in-depth look at the graffiti artist as an individual we have ever seen.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
What hasn’t been written about Banksy’s Academy Award nominated documentary? To put it bluntly, it drew a line in the sand on the culture, the end of an era of something DIY, raw and unscripted into something of a commodified, borrowed and unregulated and chaotic ascension players in the street art world that hadn’t even done art on the street art. This film reminded many of the earnestness of the early pioneers, the politics, the fighting spirit, the desire to be rule-breakers. Exit showed the passion and subsequent demise, and it was funny as hell.