"It’s quite a beautiful crime," says Swedish graffiti artist Pike, sitting on a derelict couch sipping a beer next to his hooded partner Nug. This small statement, uttered midway through director Jon Reiss’ comprehensive, exhilarating, and provocative documentary Bomb It!,
epitomizes the ethos of the taggers and street artists Reiss and partner Tracy Wares interview throughout the film. While the various subjects describe graffiti in many different ways (“Graffiti is energy,” “Art is a weapon”), they’re bound together by a commitment to an art form that is confrontational in its very nature, a quality which has contributed to the medium's remarkable popularity—as one graf writer says, “This is the biggest art movement in the history of humankind. It’s bigger than the Renaissance because of the sheer numbers alone.”
That may sound like hyperbole, but this kind of brazen, in-your-face attitude is integral to graffiti culture. However self-aggrandizing the statement is, there’s some truth to it too, because anyone who chooses can take a spray can, marker, or sticker and put their words or pictures out there for all to see. As hip-hop artist and graffiti writer KRS-1 points out, if you give a small child a marker, his first instinct will be to draw on the wall. Writing on walls has been with us since human culture began, from the caves of Lascaux to the edifices of Pompeii, from the freight trains of the ‘30s to the subways of the ‘80s. As almost every subject interviewed in the film points out, graffiti is a fundamental way of saying, “I’m here! I exist!”
Reiss began the film with a few select interviews in New York City with Sharp and All City Crew. When the members heard him asking questions no one else had ever asked, they opened their address books, and the scope of the film quickly grew to encompass the entire globe. “From those first few interviews, I realized that there was so much more to the world of graffiti that you don’t know from just looking at the walls,” he explains. “There are so many layers and contradictions that it makes the perfect subject for a documentary.”
As with his previous effort, Better Living Through Circuitry
—a documentary on the electronic dance music subculture—Reiss came at this subject as an outsider. He believes this vantage point allowed him a wider angle on the topic than an insider might have.
“I’m always interested in misfits, liking to think that I’ve always been one myself,” he says. “I never fit within the life that was prescribed for me and never felt comfortable with it—I was supposed to be an economics professor—I only felt at home when I found punk rock and created an alternative life for myself. That’s when I became a filmmaker. In that way this film is very personal for me, as pretty much all my other documentaries are. When I find people and subcultures who can find ways of expressing themselves and their political outlook on the world through their art, that’s that much more attractive to me as a filmmaker.”
Though he concedes not all graffiti is political, the very act begs political questions: What constitutes freedom of speech? Where does the public space begin and end? Who controls public space, and how? So-called “quality of life” laws, government and private surveillance, and pervasive (and occasionally unlawful) advertising by corporations all further complicate the battle over public space. Reiss deftly touches on these issues in balanced interviews with officials in government and law enforcement, as well as countless street artists.
Reiss began his filmmaking career documenting the California-based performance art group Survival Research Laboratories, which used homemade robots and mechanics in their frequently unsettling and violent outdoor performances (they also published the groundbreaking RE/Search
magazine). In that early work, as in Bomb It!
, he demonstrated a fascination with subcultures whichexpress themselves outside the bounds of traditionally accepted behavior, but do so in ways that are meaningful and sometimes profound—not to mention frequently subversive and confrontational. “I’ve always been a fan of outsider art, and graffiti is the ultimate form of outsider art in many ways,” he says.
“I’d say that’s almost required for me to spend four years of my life, making no money doing a documentary,” he adds. “I have to have something that fulfills my worldview, otherwise what’s the point? If it’d been just a collection of stories of people who do this, I don’t know if I would’ve been so interested in it.”
This approach helped him create a film that will engage people who are outsiders to the culture, as he was when he started. “I really want to appeal to people not just in this scene. That’s my ultimate mission. The biggest compliment people have given me, especially from people that don’t really like graffiti, or even used to hate it, is when they come up and say they see the world in a totally different way after seeing the film—their mental attitude toward public space has shifted. For me that’s huge.”
For graffiti aficionados, Reiss is working on five more DVDs featuring additional footage, including videos showcasing the scenes in New York, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and South Africa. He’s also planning a line of T-shirts. “Being an independent filmmaker these days is half being a businessman and half creative,” he laughs.
Bomb It! opens in New York City at Cinema Village on April 25.