Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Viral Art, the author’s forthcoming book on street art, graffiti, and the internet.
Charlie Ahearn is known as an independent filmmaker, but he’s much more than that. He’s perhaps better described as a community filmmaker. For his films The Deadly Art of Survival (1979) and Wild Style (1983), he connected with local communities of young New Yorkers (many of them teenagers) and worked with them to make movies that starred these amateur actors essentially playing themselves. Loose plots primarily served to highlight the participants’ unique youth subcultures. In the case of The Deadly Art of Survival, the film was an independent Kung-fu movie starring the members of a local Kung-fu school. For Wild Style, Charlie created one of the first examples on film of graffiti, breakdancing, and rap music brought together under the umbrella of hip-hop.
In 1978, while Charlie was filming The Deadly Art of Survival on the Lower East Side, he came across the murals that Lee Quiñones had painted on handball courts in the area, which just happened to be Quiñones’s neighborhood. Charlie was so taken by the murals, he included them in scenes of The Deadly Art of Survival. While he was filming next to the “Howard the Duck” mural, the usually reclusive Quiñones came by on his motorbike and spoke with Charlie. Quiñones introduced himself, and Charlie invited him to participate in some way in The Deadly Art of Survival. Although the graffiti artist said he was interested, he refused to provide Charlie with any contact information and instead only promised that they would see each other around the neighborhood. That plan didn’t pan out, so while Quiñones’s work appears in The Deadly Art of Survival, Quiñones himself does not. After the brief meeting, Charlie and Quiñones didn’t see each other again for two years. By then, the film had been released, and Charlie was looking for a new project.
Charlie and his twin brother, John Ahearn, were involved in Collaborative Projects, or Colab, a loose group of countercultural artists who had formed an alliance primarily to get funding for their off-the-wall projects. John curated one of Colab’s best-known endeavors, known as The Times Square Show, a large and informal group exhibition in an abandoned building off Times Square that opened in June of 1980. Because The Deadly Art of Survival was a film very much inspired by the Kung-fu movies showing at grindhouse cinemas in Times Square, Charlie included the posters for it in The Times Square Show. Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, went to The Times Square Show with curator, founding member of Colab, and Mudd Club co-founder Diego Cortez. While there, Charlie’s film posters caught Brathwaite’s eye. He had seen them before (coincidentally while spending time with Quiñones) and was intrigued by the film. He found Charlie at the show and, almost immediately, proposed that they make a movie together about graffiti and the rest of the hip-hop world.
As a side note, it must be mentioned that The Times Square Show was particularly important not just for Charlie and Brathwaite and the rest of the team that would come together to make Wild Style, but many other people as well. Although artists John Fekner and Don Leicht weren’t in the show, they did visit, and Fekner marks The Times Square Show as one of those moments when the people involved in what we now look back on as the early street art and graffiti scenes came together and began to meet one another, putting names and faces to artwork and street work.
For Brathwaite, making a film about hip-hop was an opportunity to tell a positive story about a strong, artistically minded, and cohesive community that involved rap, breakdancing, and graffiti. A self-described “art nerd,” Brathwaite had grown up skipping school to visit the great art museums of New York City. He saw parallels between hip-hop and the punk and New Wave scenes. He wanted to show the mainstream creative community that hip-hop was something to take note of, not just a passing fad of little value practiced by inner-city troublemakers.
While I use the term “hip-hop” when writing about Wild Style, Brathwaite was making these connections — and making the film — long before anyone was referring to rap, breakdancing, and graffiti collectively as such. The word was around, but the first time “hip-hop” appeared in print as a reference to all three activities was in a 1982 article by Michael Holman in the East Village Eye. Holman and Brathwaite were friends, and Brathwaite says he was the one who first educated Holman on the interconnectedness of these art forms that would become known as hip-hop. Although the term isn’t used in it, there’s also an interview with Brathwaite on the same page of the East Village Eye, just inches from Holman’s reference, where he goes into more detail than Holman on the theory that rapping, DJing, and writing graffiti are all interconnected.
Charlie was interested in the idea of a hip-hop film, and got even more excited when he learned that Brathwaite knew Quiñones. John invited the two to put some paintings in The Times Square Show and paint a mural on the outside of the building. Like the first time Charlie had met Quiñones, two years before, this was a shot in the dark. If they guys didn’t show up for whatever reason, there was no telling when or if Charlie would meet them again. But the next morning, Brathwaite and Quiñones brought some canvases to The Times Square Show, and John bought some paint for the mural. Starting that day, Charlie and Brathwaite began meeting regularly to plan their as-yet-unnamed hip-hop film.
Three years later, the result was Wild Style, featuring some of the top figures in rap, breakdancing, and graffiti. As Brathwaite had hoped, Wild Style is a document depicting a cohesive hip-hop culture involving visual art, music, and dance. As Charlie had hoped, Wild Style is empowering, putting the spotlight on overlooked but talented kids living their lives. When the film was released, it (and also the film Beat Street) was a major factoring in spreading hip-hop culture around the world. To this day, Wild Style remains a cult classic among the hip-hop and graffiti communities.
There is little time for nuance in Wild Style. The diversity of graffiti culture and how connected or disconnected it could be from rap and breakdancing were brushed aside. Zephyr, who appears in the film and designed the Wild Style logo, was a rock-and-roll fan and he dropped out of school to follow a Grateful Dead tour. By overlooking the complexities of graffiti culture, Charlie and Brathwaite may have helped create the image of the hip-hop Renaissance man, proficient in graffiti, breakdancing, and rap. In reality, while some writers enjoyed rap and even rapped themselves, others had little to do with the rest of what became known, at least in part because of Wild Style, as hip-hop culture.
While Wild Style did have a professional and international distribution deal, to promote the film around New York City, Charlie employed a larger-scale version of many of the tactics he saw kids in the Bronx using to promote rap shows — tactics that were depicted in Wild Style. The film was being shown at a theater on Broadway and West 47th Street, not far from the grindhouse cinemas playing the Kung-fu movies that Charlie loved so much. To get the word out, Charlie built up a team of high-school students throughout the city who were paid to put up flyers around their schools. The strategy worked. Wild Style was a hit, at one point the second-highest grossing film in the city behind Terms of Endearment. A review in the New York Times didn’t hurt, but Charlie doesn’t attribute the success of the film to it. Just like his use of real graffiti writers, musicians, and breakdancers in the film, Charlie believes it was the grassroots promotion that got kids into the theater to see Wild Style.
For Brathwaite, the influence of Wild Style was apparent even before it was shown in the United States. Shortly after the film’s international premiere on the German television station ZDF, Brathwaite traveled to Germany. One day, he saw a group of breakdancers breaking in a public square, so he went to check them out. At first, he was surprised that they even knew what breakdancing was; it was an American style that had not yet, to his knowledge, spread around the world. But after observing the dancers for a few moments, “I realized that they were doing the exact same moves that the Rock Steady Crew was doing in the movie Wild Style,” he told me. “And then it clicked that the film had aired on TV. That hit me like, ‘oh my God.’ I realized the effect. Because nobody could gauge that, around the world, it was gonna have that kind of effect.” That sort of emulation would go on to be quite common with films involving hip-hop — kids all over the world bringing hip-hop to new regions by appropriating right from their favorites films and books.