Graffiti is everywhere. Some of it’s provocative, some of it’s crude, some of it’s beautiful, much of it’s people simply announcing their existence, albeit mostly anonymously. Even sleepy little towns in the American heartland likely have a name, or Bible verses, or offers of sex scratched into a wall or bathroom stall somewhere. But, as a political and artistic practice, it’s in the world’s major cities that graffiti flourishes.
The Jon Reiss directed documentary Bomb It traces the global, urban geography and history of modern graffiti culture, moving eastward from Philadelphia and touching down in locations like Barcelona, Cape Town, and São Paulo before ending up in Los Angeles. The film’s tagline, “Street Art is Revolution”, aptly sums up the film’s message, but the simplicity of that slogan belies the documentary’s nuanced and thoughtful treatment of its subject.
Although organized primarily as an historical geography of the art, Bomb It is also an intervention into the civic debates that swirl around graffiti. At the broadest level, it’s a consideration of where the graffiti artist (or writer or painter, different people prefer different words, and some reject the term “graffiti” altogether) fits into the urban social fabric. Is graffiti a “gateway crime”, a sign of neighborhood or even civilizational decline? or is it a vital tool of political and self-expression for the marginal and forgotten? The filmmakers’ sympathies are pretty clear, artists get far more screen time than do their critics, but the discussion about what graffiti means for a city is still treated as a real and serious one and not as a debate with a predetermined right and wrong.
As represented in the film, the community debate over graffiti is most interesting in Barcelona and São Paulo, albeit for different reasons. In Barcelona, at the time of filming, there are no laws prohibiting painting or writing on city walls. As a result, the city has become known for spectacular and beautiful graffiti. Here the lines between licit and illicit art seems is more the product of ongoing negotiation between artists and residents than of settled law.
In São Paulo the ambiguities have more to do with under-resourced governments and extreme poverty than with political tradition, but both cities have unique roles in the film for featuring actual conversations and moments of agreement between artists, neighborhood residents, and city authorities. The segment on Cape Town implies similar conditions to São Paulo, but more because graffiti as art is a new part of urban life in that city than because of any formal or customary political practice. All three provide strikingly different images from those in New York and Los Angeles, where the respective sides are shown to be thoroughly alienated, and engaged in a kind of warfare rather than in direct conversation.
Bomb It‘s final act frames the debate over graffiti in terms of advertising, which brings the issue of class into sharp focus. The stance of the film, and of its more politically-minded subjects, is that graffiti is art by and for the people. It’s a practice that allows the poor and the socially disconnected to see and make art. It’s the public using its space for public purposes, as opposed to advertisers who purchase, and effectively privatize, public space for commercial ends.
The documentary encourages viewers to question the legitimacy of allowing only the monied to make and enjoy art and, more critically, to use public spaces for expressive purposes. Graffiti artists may not always consult with the authorities or with property owners before they tag or paint a building or a train car, but neighborhood residents are also rarely asked about billboard advertisements either, or, indeed, whether they want a billboard in their neighborhood in the first place.
As often as not, graffiti artists, as opposed to developers or advertisers, are actual neighborhood, or at least city, residents; graffiti, the argument goes, is a means to reclaim public space for the public. On a more basic level, the documentary raises questions about the relative artistic values of graffiti and advertising, suggesting that ads, with their underlying consumerism and frequent soft core porn aesthetics, are more “polluting” than even the crudest graffiti.
The subject of advertising is also used to open the question of graffiti as art and commodity. A number of the featured artists, such as “the twins” from São Paulo, not only practice street art, but create for galleries and do corporate/commercial work. For hard core and more politically-minded artists, the mainstreaming of graffiti, which includes the adoption of street styles by corporations and advertisers, drains it of its radical potential.
From the other side, artists who work “legitimately” argue that they, too, have to survive, and if they can survive by practicing some version of their art, why not? Most notably, not all of the featured artists are easily categorized as being clearly on one side or another of this question. Some, like Shepard Fairey, make distinctions between practice and aesthetics; the adoption of the latter by corporate interests does not necessarily drain the former of its political significance.
What makes these conversations particularly interesting is how they replicate age-old debates among artists and creative people in virtually all fields. At what point does an artist “sell out”? Should your creation be personal or political? Should one create for oneself or for others? While the specific history and nature of graffiti as an illegal practice places gives these conversations a unique context, they are still part of a wider field of discourse on art and artists, and Reiss’ willingness to treat graffiti artists as actual artists, and not as criminals, is one of the strengths of the film.
By contrast, Bomb It‘s historical-geographic structure is both enlightening and problematic. The approach is effective in demonstrating the ubiquity of the form and reveals some interesting differences from place-to-place, but many of the segments are perfunctory in nature. For example, aside from Barcelona, the attention devoted to European cities does little more than brush the surface of interesting cultural differences between artists in different places. Substantive vignettes are devoted to Philadelphia, New York, Barcelona, São Paulo, and Los Angeles. These are the cities which ground the film’s political and philosophical debates. The remaining locations, as individuated segments, contribute little to the main themes, but could have been effectively represented in other ways, such as in quick montages of art from different parts of the world.
The film’s final act on advertising and public space steps out of the world tour structure, and is suggestive of an alternate way of organizing the documentary along more thematic, and less on geographic, lines. This would have made it possible to feature the most interesting individuals and stories from different places, but without having to specifically devote time to each location.
While it seems clear that Philadelphia and New York, as the origin points for modern graffiti culture, merit specific attention, the other cities covered in the film do not require their own segments, at least not as presented. In the DVD commentary track featuring Reiss and producer Tracy Wares, budgetary constraints are provided as one reason why the filmmakers were not able to spend as much time in every place and with everyone as they would have liked. This seems as good a reason as any to build the film so that those limitations would be less evident.
Bomb It‘s narrative structure also has the effect of collapsing history into geography, making movement from place-to-place also implied movement in time. The way in which the final act steps outside of the geographic framework helps to rectify this impression, but there is an implication that each jump in location also represents a particular evolution of the art. If the whole film were organized more like the public space segment, the simultaneity of graffiti, as well as its global diffusion, would be more clear. It would also have provided more options for the creative use of archival footage and animations. As it is, the use of such material is pretty well limited by place.
The aforementioned commentary is one of the extras included on the DVD. The others are: a “Behind the Scenes” feature, a pair of extended interviews, and full time lapse sequences of particular works of art in different cities.
The “Behind the Scenes” feature begins as a fairly routine promotional piece for the film before turning into more of a condensed first-person replay of the documentary with Jon Reiss. It’s entertaining and informative, providing additional details about the film’s locations and what made each one interesting to the filmmaker. This is also the case with Reiss and Ware’s commentary track, which engages directly with the political issues underlying the documentary and the two creators provide additional information and context for each place visited by the crew. Both are excellent supplements to the film.
The extended interviews are with Stefano Bloch, featured in the L.A. section, and KRS-One, who plays a minor role in the film. Bloch is one of the more politically articulate subjects in Bomb It and getting to hear more from him about graffiti, on both a personal and professional level, is a worthwhile feature.
KRS-One is politically articulate as well, but is more of a contextual figure than one directly involved in graffiti. I can only assume that his interview is included in the extras mostly because there was not enough room for his story in the film proper. The time lapse sequences are cool to look at and, like the KRS-One interview, are good choices for the DVD extras because not enough of each could be fit into the final version of the movie.
Criticisms of structure notwithstanding, Bomb It is well-made political cinema. Perhaps the best compliment I can give that, it does more than preach to the choir. Viewers who are already in favor of graffiti will certainly be affirmed by the film, but those who are opposed should not feel as if the movie silences them or subjects them to ridicule (although it sometimes walks that line, particularly when showing the corporate-sponsored and L.A.-based Totally Against Graffiti, or T.A.G). Those who aren’t sure what to think about graffiti will undoubtedly have their eyes opened by the way the film grounds its subject in the concrete and everyday aspects of life in the world’s cities, and the way in which graffiti is taken seriously as both art and politics.