As an ever-increasing amount of street art documentaries appear online, along with pleas for Kickstarter donations to prospective films, I, a longtime street art enthusiast, find it near impossible and entirely overwhelming to try to watch all of these films. With the recent release of yet another street art documentary, Las Calles Hablan (2013), I took a look at four fascinating films documenting the global street art movement, with the hope of easing the decision-making process for wishy-washy observers like me.
Despite the divergent focus of each film — ranging from covering street art in one city to globally — important similarities between the films and their featured artists unquestionably emerge. Across coverage of street artists of varying geographies, ethnicities, and races, many of the artists depicted admit to similar motivations for putting their work on the street — like the freedom of painting illegally or interaction with the public beyond the white walls of a gallery or museum.
1. Las Calles Hablan (2013)
Beginning with an evocative quote from Professor Greg Niemeyer at UC Berkeley — “Graffiti is a life force in a city that says to every citizen, ‘I’m alive, the city is alive.’ A city without graffiti is like a field without flowers” — Las Calles Hablan (2013), directed by Justin Donlon, focuses on street art in Barcelona.
Exploring the scene through the individual street artists and street art enthusiasts such Katrine Knauer, co-producer of the film and founder of the street art website Mapping Barcelona Public Art, the film traces the history of Barcelona street art from its beginnings after the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s to the influence of American hip-hop culture in the 1990s to today’s variegated scene. Between the dub step-filled montages of street art, Barcelona street artists — like Kenor, who creates beautiful, bright abstracts, and Miss Van, a French street artist who moved to Barcelona in 2003 — explain their participation and opinions on Barcelona’s scene.
One of the main arguments of the documentary is the increasingly strict application of the anti-graffiti laws in Barcelona, which is making it more difficult for street artists. In Barcelona, like most cities around the world, artists are forbidden to do any type of graffiti with any material from ink to paint in all public spaces and on public transportation, with punishments resulting in a fine of up to 3000 Euros. Due to the threat from city government, many of Barcelona’s street artists have had to renegotiate how they create their art.
In conjunction with the release of the film, the producers organized an online petition for the government to participate in a conversation with the city’s street artists.
2. “Urbanbugs” (2010)
Even though it was made in 2010, the Istanbul-centric short documentary “Urbanbugs” (2010), directed by Aykut Alp Ersoy, unquestionably becomes more relevant with the proliferation of political graffiti surrounding #OccupyGezi. While “Urbanbugs” is perhaps my least favorite of the street art documentaries I watched, due to its lack of a real history of Turkish street art, the film certainly deserves a look if only to understand the graffiti and street art scene in Istanbul before the #OccupyGezi movement.
Presenting the apolitical artistic street art scene in Istanbul, the artists view their work in a similar manner as the artists in Barcelona, as a means to reach a wider public audience with their art. One artist, FUNK, explains in the film that he does not try to politicize his art because, “we already have political stuff in our country.” Despite their lack of a political drive in the film, I would be interested to see what the artists in the documentary create now with the unrest in Istanbul.
Despite the beauty and obvious talent of the Istanbul street artists, I found myself wanting more of an explanation of the history of street art in Istanbul. One of the most interesting moments in the film was when graffiti artist PET05 described how graffiti mirrors the importance of calligraphy in Islamic culture, but this connection was unfortunately not expanded upon. I’m admittedly ill-informed on contemporary Turkish history or street culture, but after viewing the film I’m not much the wiser.
3. Children of the Iron Snake (2012)
Titled after a reference to trains resembling “silver serpents,” Children of the Iron Snake (2012), which can be watched online here, is perhaps the best of the single-city street art documentaries for precisely the reason “Urbanbugs” (2010) disappointed. Focusing on the graffiti and street art culture in Melbourne, Children of the Iron Snake, directed by Alex Macbeth and Miriam Hisom, provides a detailed look into the history of the art form in Melbourne, with interviews with some of the first graffiti writers in the city. Much like the early days of graffiti in New York, Melbourne graffiti originated with young kids who rebelliously stole spray paint and started writing on walls to gain a type of fame. With the appearance of the film Style Wars (1983), depicting New York graffiti culture, the entire graffiti scene in Melbourne exploded with New York-inspired hip-hop and graffiti.
The strongest segment of Children of the Iron Snake (2012) is the discussion of the influence of Australian history on its street art culture. Displaying a quote from Norman Mailer’s famous essay The Faith of Graffiti, which reads, “the cave painting is now collective,” the film delves into Aborigine art practices such as stenciling their hands on walls by blowing mixed pigment from their mouths. As shown in the film, much of the street art in Melbourne addresses the troubled Australian identity and history, whether representing the shame of the plight of the Aborigines or nostalgia for Australia’s precolonial past.
4. Bomb It (2007)
One of the first and among the best documentaries on the globalization of graffiti and street art, Bomb It (2007), directed by Jon Reiss, takes viewers on a trip through the history of the origins of street art in Philadelphia and New York, then progresses to short segments in cities around the world, from Tokyo to Sao Paolo to Capetown.
Separating itself from other street art documentaries, Bomb It (2007) expertly interviews major figures in the development of graffiti, including Cornbread in Philadelphia, credited as the first graffiti writer, Taki 183, one of the first graffiti writers in New York, and Tracy 168, developer of wildstyle graffiti. Through those interviews as well as interviews with more recent graffiti writers (like REVS, who comes across as completely terrifying), Bomb It depicts the innovation that characterizes the New York graffiti scene.
Presenting graffiti and street art as a significant global movement, Bomb It offers a glimpse into the graffiti and street art communities worldwide as international street artists paint for the cameras and speak on their respective street art. Some of my favorite segments include discussions of their cultural differences which often lead to aesthetic differences. For example, Dutch graffiti focuses more on typographical innovation due to the importance of Dutch graphic design. Presenting the similarities and differences in street art around the world, Bomb It is a valuable resource for street art enthusiasts, particularly those who only have a passing knowledge of the history of the medium and want to learn more.
Taken together, all four of these street art documentaries seem to powerfully present street art and graffiti as an essential part of the human experience. Despite the current glut of street art documentaries, this significant depiction of the near universality of street art is undoubtedly worth continuing to capture.