“Retro Metro” and the Golden Age of NYC Graffiti

09/26/2014 8:30 AM |

In spite of its graffiti references and much-sampled “Subway Theme,” Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1983)—a valuable historic document, but narratively speaking, something of a bildungsroman on mogadon—is not in BAM’s program. Its absence is justified by the inclusion of Stan Lathan’s enjoyable urban melodrama Beat Street (1984), which was released in the same year that two key things happened: the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) began a five-year, “die hard” program to eradicate graffiti; and Bernie Goetz, a decade on from Death Wish, became a “folk hero” for shooting four unarmed black kids on a subway. With its story of two friends eking out a living on the hardscrabble South Bronx streets, Beat Street effectively doubles as a feature-length testament to the fiscal, social and corporeal unsustainability of pursuing subway graffiti writing with any sort of vigor.

The quietly driven Kenny (Guy Davis) is a budding musician, while his Puerto Rican pal Ramon (Jon Chardiet), much to the chagrin of his desolate father, is dedicated to decorating trains. “My tags are running in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, right now, in every borough, on every line”, he opines: “It’s eight feet high and it’s beautiful!” Ramon is finally tempted by a virginal white train—modeled on Koch’s short-lived “White Fleet”—and sets about leaving his mark, only for his nemesis, overwriter Spit (based on Style Wars‘s villainous destroyer Cap), to immediately deface it. After an ensuing chase and struggle, poor Ramon is terminally frazzled by a live third rail, in effect dying for his art. Though Beat Street operates in a fairly pat emotional register, there is one sliver of genuine visual poetry: when Ramon’s casket is driven away, the camera tilts up and pans right, simultaneously matching the hearse’s exit from the lower portion of the frame with a graffiti-strewn subway train barreling across an overhead bridge. Where is his spirit, this composition seems to ask: in the hearse, or splayed across the side of the train? Presciently, the film treats Kenny’s musical dreams as infinitely worthier of time and investment than Ramon’s spray-can endeavors. Indeed, it is hip-hop, rather than graffiti, which has gone on to become the multi-million-dollar empire.

If Beat Street missed the boat on graffiti’s salad days, then 1985’s Turk 182!—its name a risible riff on Taki 183—sputtered out on the way to the pier. Timothy Hutton stars as the eponymous tagger, a spunky 20-year-old who mounts a graffiti campaign in an effort to redeem the reputation of his brother, a heroic fireman dismissed from his job by an unfeeling city bureaucracy. His limp reign includes leaving his mark on a supposedly graffiti-proof subway car to be used by the fictional Mayor Tyler in an anti-vandalism campaign. The film—which Dave Kehr described as “deliberately designed to drive you screaming from the theater”—is not in the BAM program, but serves as a reminder of the horrors of mainstream subcultural appropriation.

Under the auspices of President of the New York City Transit Authority David Gunn, who launched the “Clean Trains” initiative, the MTA systemically, train line by train line, took the subways off the map for graffiti writers. If graffiti artists “bombed” a train car, the MTA would yank it from the system, even during rush hour. On May 12, 1989, the last graffiti-daubed train car was pulled from service: this was declared the official day of the city’s victory over train graffiti. By the time of Leslie Harris’ sparkling, underrated indie comedy Just Another Girl on the IRT—released in 1992, making it chronologically the final film in the Retro Metro strand—the subway cars traveled on by our heroine, independent 17-year-old Brooklynite Chantel (Ariyan Johnson), are conspicuously clean.

Of course, there is still subway graffiti today—it just never leaves the train yards. Artists paint subway cars knowing that they’ll be cleaned before they’re ever seen by the public. The live third rail, too, continues to claim lives. In December 2013, graffiti legend Jason Wulf—who tagged as DG—was electrocuted at 25th Street Station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Just as artistry and tragedy endures, so does a fascination for the era. Manheim Kirchheimer’s extraordinary, newly restored 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated (screening at BAM from Oct 17-23), takes a reverent, classical approach to subway art, with shimmering 16mm images set against a soundtrack interweaving ambient city squalls with the roiling jazz of Charles Mingus. Basically unseen for decades, Stations is a fitting testament to an artform, and an era, which remains internationally iconic.