INSIDE THE ’80S GRAFFITI DOC STYLE WARS
The producer of the legendary film on its making, and why street art shouldn’t be a crime.
When Henry Chalfant moved to New York City in 1973, the Stanford-educated sculptor found cheap studio space in a declining city, and compelling, clandestine art on the subway to SoHo. Graffiti had risen from the ashes of a burned-down Bronx, mutating from simple tags to Rust-Oleum-rendered murals that consumed entire train cars. And while other commuters contemplated how best to strangle the perpetrators, Chalfant grabbed his camera to capture the rolling canvases.
He chronicled graffiti in a pair of 1980s photo books, but perhaps Chalfant’s greatest anthropological contribution to the culture was as producer of Style Wars, a seminal 1983 documentary that’s finally out on Blu-ray today. Originally aired on PBS, Style Wars illuminates New York subway spraying at its early-’80s apex. It’s a drama in which teenagers defy the Koch administration, their parents, and sometimes each other to write their pseudonyms big and often, inspiring future generations to put their names where they didn’t belong. Chalfant spoke with us about gaining the trust of teenaged vandals as a middle-aged white man, the brawl that spawned Style Wars, and the creativity embedded in New York’s dangerous old days. Here are his words:
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