People left their mark on the world since the first prehistoric man carefully left the outline of his hand on a cave wall, but Reiss' film attributes the creation of modern graffiti art and culture to a Philadelphian named Cornbread, who began writing his name in public spaces in 1967, earning notoriety, several jail stints and imitators. By the early 1970s, New York – staggering under the combined weight of a crumbling infrastructure, vanishing tax base, an unprecedented influx of drugs and rampant crime – became both a the cautionary icon of urban decay and the graffiti capitol of the world, thanks in part to the efforts of bike messenger "Taki 183," who enthusiastically scrawled his name throughout the five boroughs. Profiled by the New York Times in 1971, "Taki" inspired a generation of young, disenfranchised New Yorkers – most, though not all, poor and members of minority groups -- to leave their "tags" on the city's walls and subway trains. Their increasingly colorful, elaborate and large signatures sparked heated debate: Was graffiti an emerging art, a legitimate form of social criticism or vandalism pure and simple? Reiss constructs the usual "dialogue" between passionate taggers and sundry politicians, law enforcement officials and public policy experts, then leaves the matter open. The film's scope extends well beyond the United States, and some of the film's freshest material involves graffiti outside the US: He interviews French artist "Blek le Rat" and young taggers from the racially volatile projects outside Paris, argues that graffiti gave voices to black South Africans during the last brutal years of Apartheid and to antifascist activists in 1970s Brazil, and spotlights an Amsterdam school teacher who somewhat naively compares her graffiti to the innocent, joyful play of young children.
Reiss supplements his extensive interviews with graffiti artists past and present, including Sandra "Pink" Fabara, one of the young stars of the pioneering WILD STYLE (1983), with film clips, original animation and archival footage. (In English, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Filmmaker Jon Reiss, who chronicled the international rave scene in BETTER LIVING THROUGH CIRCUITRY (1999), takes on the history and culture of graffiti.