Documentary paints a colorful picture of urban art
Directed by Jon Reiss
Bomb It, the latest documentary from Jon Reiss (Better Living Though Circuitry, Virtues of Negative Fascination), certainly aims its lens at a colorful subject. Hip-hopping its way around the globe to report the current state of the graffiti art movement, the film captures (to bite a lyric from Grandmaster Melle Mel) “serenades of blue and red and the beauty of the rainbow fills your head.”
Reiss’ film starts out by giving viewers a history lesson, tracing graffiti all the way back to its “inventor,” a Philadelphia dude named Cornbread who allegedly came up with the idea of writing on walls in the late-’60s. Never mind that the word graffiti itself originates with the ancient Romans, who were quite prolific at scratching their names, favorite political slogans, slanders and snippets of sexual innuendo on the nearest upright surface.
What it lacks in historical depth, Bomb It makes up for in modern content. The film is basically a travelogue, moving from New York to London to Capetown to Amsterdam to Paris to São Paulo to Tokyo to Los Angeles with plenty of touchdowns in between. At each destination, the filmmakers check in with the local graffiti crews to find out what they’re up to.
It might have been nice if the filmmakers had come up with a more comparative narrative, showing how the art form has evolved around the world and over time. Still, we do get to glimpse the vivid design work present in Dutch graffiti, the social unrest infiltrating ethnic French graffiti and the rich history of political graffiti prevalent in South Africa. The sheer volume of artists being interviewed is impressive. Subjects swing between upscale street-artists-done-good (Ron English, Marc Ecko, Shepard Fairey, Revok), crafty urban philosophers (Paris’ Blek Le Rat), back-in-the-day legends (Lady Pink, who appeared in the b-boy classic Wild Style) and hardcore anarchist taggers (anonymous crazymen Fuckin Revs, Nug and others) who just want to bomb the system.
The film mostly glosses over the issue of violent street gangs, imagining all wall-scrawlers as peaceful, avant-garde artists—a contention that could be easily argued against. There are a few contrapuntal interviews with anti-graffiti authority figures, but Bomb It generally paints anyone who doesn’t appreciate the art form as an uptight old white guy. There is a bit of discussion about the difference between muralists (are they sellouts?) and taggers (are they punks?). A little deeper exploration of these subjects might have made the documentary a more pointed one. But fans of “getting up” (along with “bombing,” the preferred parlance for spray-painting) will have plenty to fill their eyeballs with.
Aside from the interviews, there are several guerilla-style segments showing the artists practicing their subterranean craft. It’s not as instructional as, say, the hip-hop DJ doc Scratch, but it does capture the outlaw feel of the art form. Historical footage even manages to show off some stunning New York subway-train murals (a practice all but wiped off the face of NYC in 1989).
Toward the end, Reiss finally starts to find a common thread, tying his various interviewees together in a discussion about the concept of public versus private space. Arguments over the artistic merits of someone scrawling their initials on a lamppost fade into the background as writers around the globe decry the co-opting of public space by major corporations. Billboards, posters, ads, flyers, postcards and more litter our cities and we think nothing of them. And yet we label graffiti—which isn’t trying to sell us anything—as vandalism. Poverty, gentrification, authority, conformity, urban decay: These are a few of the things to which graffiti provides a counterpoint. Eventually, it becomes a war over what we see on our streets, with the Nike swoosh on one side and an “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker on the other. Love or hate graffiti, Bomb It isn’t likely to change your prejudice. But it might just make you look twice the next time you see a streetcorner Alibi box covered in China marker.