This week I watched Style Wars, a 1983 documentary about street art that was emerging in the Bronx at that time. Emerging is actually an enormous understatement. By 1983 every train in New York had been tagged inside and out, graffiti fans in far away towns would wait near the train tracks and cheer for new work by their favorite artists. Street artists worked independently with the same mission: They were given a name and their job was to “get it out there.”
By 1983, aesthetic wars were already at foot amongst the artists. There were unspoken rules broken and upheld by the artists in the name of respect and preservation. Stylistic hierarchies emerged and the notion of authenticity was introduced. By 1983 street art held a firm place in the New York gallery circuit and was adored and collected by the nouveau riche. A new class of street art came forth that was created specifically for gallery exhibition and commercial sale.
There was also a war being declared against street art by New York city officials such as then-Mayor Ed Koch whose abhorrence to the onslaught of hip hop imagery drove him to build two barbed-wire fences to keep vandals out of the subway yards. Koch kept wolves in the space between the two fences as an extra measure of intimidation. He launched a public service campaign against street art featuring champion boxer Macho Camacho: “Take it from the champs, graffiti is for chumps.” Other officials offered pleas to New York’s creative terrorists, offering full privilege to paint the outside of the trains in exchange for laying off the interior walls.
30 years after the birth of cool in California and 30 years before the death of street art in Detroit, cool was alive and well, living in the Bronx. Style Wars is a beautiful document of this cool, and an essential watch for anyone interested in art, hip hop, marketing, cultural history, or just wants to see some incredibly beautiful cinematography. You can watch it in full for free on YouTube.