Bomb It

posted May 29, 2008 11:09:57 AM CDT | 4 comments

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This spellbinding documentary from director Joe Reiss traces the history of graffiti tagging—or “bombing”-- back to its origins in Philly, where a man named Cornbread became as legendary as “Kilroy was here.” Through interviews with him and other early innovators such as “Taki 183,” the film explores how what began as simple name-writing on walls developed into an art form that is alternately celebrated and denigrated. The film digs deep into graffiti subculture, from anarchist punks who tag as a form of sociopolitical rebellion to expressive artists who see the form as a way to beautify the ruins of urban decay. It explores how early taggers developed catchy pseudonyms and typographical forms to elevate themselves to the equivalent of urban folk heroes, and then follows the evolution of increasingly elaborate lettering styles into colorful murals for which art collectors pay thousands of dollars.

Reiss is careful to include opinions from all sides of the art vs. vandalism debate, interviewing subway officials and police investigators who seem to think graffiti is the first step towards the downfall of Western civilization. He talks to Old School vets who acknowledge the early connections between graffiti and gangs, and tracks these shadowy characters as they go about their “missions” in the dead of night, ever watchful for the long arm of the law. He even talks to cultural anthropologists who point out that humans have been tagging in one form or another since prehistoric times, when man left his mark on cave walls and the insides of pyramids. Best of all, he tracks graffiti’s expansion across the globe– from Paris to Palestine, from Barcelona to Berlin, from Cape Town to Tokyo and everywhere in between– proving hip-hop’s strength as a truly global movement.

The hyperactive editing style can be a bit jarring, bopping from city to city and continent to continent with a kinetic energy that can be as intense as the music that inspired this style of art. When the fast-talking bombers start rapping in various languages, trying to keep up with the subtitles and the constant barrage of killer visual images can get a bit hectic. But that feels like a minor complaint for a film that digs so deeply into this crucial element in hip-hop history, and a vibrant art form that has influenced everything from graphic design and comic books to film. Though conservatives may still see graffiti as the destruction of property, Reiss’ vivid film makes it seem like—if you’ll pardon the throwback phrase—“the bomb.”

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