“Retro Metro” and the Golden Age of NYC Graffiti

09/26/2014 8:30 AM |

Retro Metro
September 26-October 5 at at BAM

The Retro Metro film season at BAM takes “a 16-film ride through the history of the New York City subway, from dreamy visions of modern city life in the 1930s to the glory days of graffiti art in the 1970s when there was still a K train and rides cost less than $1.” Though the city’s subway has a long, proud and occasionally smelly history, it’s those latter days of graffiti art which constitute its most iconic era in terms of cinematic representation. Subway graffiti was ubiquitous from the early 1970s to the late 80s, and showcased a variety of tags and designs from local, mostly black and Latino youngsters with tags like TAKI 183, Stay High 149, DONDI, and Lady Pink. These artists were either lauded in hipper circles for their artistry (see Norman Mailer’s floridly pro-graffiti 1974 book The Faith Of Graffiti), or derided by the establishment as vandals. Capturing the artwork’s contradictions, hip-hop scholar Fab 5 Freddy—in his foreword for Bruce Davidson’s classic Subway photography book—describes it as “a tornado of multicolored, mural-like extravaganzas on the outsides, while interior signatures became an abstract of Jackson Pollock-like drippy calligraphic madness.”

The explosion of subway graffiti in NYC began in the early 1970s, and quickly became a political issue: by 1971, the city was spending $300k per year to erase it. Mayor John Lindsay saw graffiti as a pathological problem—the New York Times reported his belief that “graffiti writing is related to mental health problems”, and his description of the writers as “insecure cowards” seeking recognition. By 1973, a new anti-graffiti task force had been installed, and spending rose dramatically. In spite of Lindsay’s fulminations, and the rise in popularity of the art form, subway graffiti had yet to fully impose itself on cinematic representations of the city. The carriage interiors in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), for example, are conspicuously spotless: it’s the glowering human scum, to be vanquished by Charlie Bronson’s resourceful Paul Kersey, that are dirtying up the trains.

The use of subway graffiti as a visual place-marker in cinema rose under the consecutive tenures of firstly Mayor Abe Beame—who was forced to slash the struggling city’s budget in a bid to stave off bankruptcy—then Mayor Ed Koch, who was sworn in in 1978. Yet some filmmakers transcended the use of subway graffiti as simply local coloring. In John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), graffiti is used as a poetic backdrop for its characters’ psychological states. Consider the scene in which white-suited jiver Tony Manero (John Travolta), in a maudlin mood, languishes in a carriage. A huge, claret splurge of paint suggestively haloes his head. In another shot, the scrawled black tags hover over his bouffant like jagged thought bubbles. There’s a similar moment in Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979)—perhaps the ultimate NYC-subway-as-narrative-function movie—when a group of peppy prom kids hop on the train, and sit opposite our dirtied, exhausted lower-class antiheroes. In the absence of dialogue, all we have to go on are charged glances and the hieroglyphics on the wall, which speak to characters’ difference in class and status. The scene echoes Fab 5 Freddy’s observation that “the graffiti on the trains began to decode itself when people sat in front of it, like Medusa coming to life.”

In the Beame and early Koch eras, there had been little press coverage of graffiti in the media, which reflected the city government’s reluctance to publicize its continued failure to control the phenomenon. Yet this blackout ended in 1980, when the Times Magazine published a feature on three writers: NE, T-Kid and SEEN. SEEN is a key figure in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s Style Wars, a thrilling documentary which premiered on PBS in 1983, but was filmed from 1980 to 1981. Ostensibly a study of the three pillars of hip-hop culture (graffiti, breaking, and hip-hop), Style Wars lasers in on the taggers and bombers. Its title is a model of punchy multivalency, referring to the simultaneous battles between youth and establishment (Mayor Koch, who dubs graffiti a “quality of life offence”, and ramps up anti-graffiti spending, is the film’s arch-villain); parents and children; and various intra-subcultural rivalries. Like Jennie Livingstone’s study of the drag ball scene Paris Is Burning (1990), Style Wars is a rare example of a formally interesting documentary which somehow manages to capture the texture and entire arc of a subculture. One thrilling sequence sets a rapid montage of SEEN’s vibrant, large-scale train art to the rollicking swagger of Dion’s 1961 rock n’ roll hit “The Wanderer”, effectively melding an aural signifier of one generation’s subculture with the visual of the next.

Style Wars shows how graffiti writing was fetishized by the artists, who were attracted by the elements of danger. One artist almost licks his lips when speaking of “live rails, crazy cops, the smell of trains”. The film also broaches the racial element: consider the telling moment when a dweeby white tagger in a Van Halen shirt admits to a love for robbing paint, but perspicaciously confirms that it’s harder for black and Puerto Rican kids to get away with it. Notable, too, is the inclusion of footage from cringeworthy, ingratiating anti-graffiti PSAs starring boxers Hector Camacho and Alex Ramos (“Take it from champs, graffiti is for chumps!”), and Fame stars Irene Cara and Gene Anthony Ray (“Use your head, or your voice, but don’t waste your time making a mess!”); the co-option of mainstream cultural stars to quash a subculture is frequently a sign of its impending doom.

The film ends on a double note of ruefulness. Firstly, it spotlights the early days of the commodification of street art, with graffiti easing from the subways into Manhattan’s art galleries. Then there’s Mayor Koch’s announcement of a $1.5m program to provide barbed-wire fences and German shepherd watchdogs for the Corona rail yards. (Months later, Koch announced that the city would increase the city’s contribution to the MTA by $22.4m in order to fund the installation of similar fences at 18 other yards.) Yet Style Wars‘s spiritual denouement is a stunning, uninterrupted left-to-right pan of an entire subway train daubed in colorful murals, tags, anti-war slogans, and personal pleas. If people wanted to know what the youth responsible were thinking, it was all there, on the trains, plain as day.