Graffiti movies color our urge to make a mark

Everywhere they go in the Bronx, friends Kaps and Malcolm (played by Melvin Mogoli, left, and Ty Hickson) see graffiti art as part of their everyday lives in the movie Gimme the Loot. Via IFC Films.
It seems like every year or so, a new debate about graffiti art comes up in Fresno. Even with a vibrant and fully designated Mural District, our community still gets stuck on what kind of public art is appropriate and what’s not, and the sensibilities vary wildly depending on the neighborhood.

On June 14, as the first part of a double feature, Filmworks screens the American independent comedy Gimme the Loot, a story about two determined teen graffiti artists from the Bronx. Whether you decide to call the film’s protagonists, Sofia and Malcolm, “taggers” or “artists,” the movie leaves no doubt about the power of art to elevate their social standing.

From first-time director Adam Leon, Gimme the Loot delivers a skillful mash-up of film styles, with meandering elements of mumblecore, the coming-of-age feel of teen rebellion movies, and the panoramic vibe of a Woody Allen homage to New York. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival for good reason: It depicts Sofia and Malcolm’s everyday urban life as a whirlwind, soaked in street-level art culture at each turn.

Of course, Gimme the Loot is not the first movie about Bronx teens and graffiti.

Critics often trace graffiti movies to the 1983 documentary Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver. The movie, which first aired on PBS and then later won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance, delivered one of the earliest cinematic accounts of hip-hop culture, which included clandestine subway graffiti artists, rappers rhyming over turntable-made beats, and breakdancing.

Style Wars gave suburban white America its first glimpse at inner-city hip-hop – and suburban white America mostly got scared. As The New York Times said in its obituary for Silver, who passed away in 2008, some saw the brilliant graffiti as “a dazzling form of public expression” that leapt boldly from spray cans onto public walls. Many others, including the New York City mayor at the time, Ed Koch, saw it is “an unsightly public nuisance” that signified crime and delinquency.

Sound like a familiar debate, Fresno?

About the same time, filmmaker Charlie Ahearn also delivered Wild Style, a drama with a heavy dose of documentary footage from the Bronx hip-hop scene. In addition to rare early performance footage from turntablist Grandmaster Flash, the film included the story of Zoro, who sees tension grow in his personal life as his reputation as the most elusive graffiti writer in the city gets complicated. There are inevitable nods to Zoro’s story in Gimme the Loot, as the high-profile stakes of the art form escalate.

Showing Gimme the Loot is also not the first time Filmworks has weighed in with its programming on the subject of graffiti.

In November 2008, to commemorate the (unfortunately short-lived) re-opening of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Filmworks screened the Aaron Rose documentary Beautiful Losers. That movie looked at an early 1990s collective of outsider artists in New York City who were inspired by the do-it-yourself subcultures of hip-hop, skateboarding, and punk rock.

In August 2010, Filmworks then screened Exit Through the Gift Shop, the unconventional documentary about elusive political activist and global graffiti star Banksy. The film told the story of how an eccentric French shopkeeper turned filmmaker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the elusive artist turn the camera back on its owner.

In the end, viewers were left wondering what’s real and what’s fake, but the incredible behind-the-scenes footage in Exit Through the Gift Shop of some of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists at work left the biggest impressions.

Another excellent graffiti movie is the 2007 documentary Bomb It, directed by Jon Reiss. The film looks at multiple global graffiti movements and their place in political dialogue, especially in debates over public space and advertising.

What makes Bomb It unique is that it tries to connect our urge to paint graffiti on the walls of public spaces with our evolutionary urge to draw on walls – from the very first cave paintings, through Picasso, and up to stolen spray cans being used to dot subway walls.

In other words, Gimme the Loot has a lot more historical context than being a movie about graffiti. Maybe it will also continue an important dialogue about what constitutes public art.

Jefferson Beavers serves on the Fresno Filmworks board. Based in Fresno, he works as a freelance journalist.