In the fall of 1983, PBS premiered Style Wars, a documentary that chronicled New York City’s youth culture, focusing in on two of its most exciting (and polarizing) facets: break dancing and graffiti. The brainchild of director/producer Tony Silver and producer Henry Chalfant, the film features both eager artists and naysaying officials as it captures what was, quite literally, a vanishing New York.
As an invaluable relic of the city’s history and the beginnings of hip-hop itself, Style Wars is required viewing for NYC historians and b-boy culture romantics alike. Now, the Save Style Wars project is raising money to refurbish the original film reel– an expensive process which must be done frame by frame. As Style Wars approaches its 25th anniversary, we spoke to Chalfant, as well as editor Linda Habib, and graffiti legends John “Crash” Matos and Carlos “Mare 139” Rodriguez about their participation in the film, which you can watch in full below.
HENRY CHALFANT, co-producer: I had been taking pictures of graffiti for years and, in 1981, I was invited to do a slide show performance in SoHo. I wanted to liven it up a bit so I invited a couple of rappers I knew, Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee, to perform. I heard about breaking from [photographer] Martha Cooper, who had witnessed it in a train station up in Washington Heights. So I asked a graffiti writer if they knew anything about it and they said, “I know the best crew in the city” and brought me [dancers] Frosty Freeze and Crazy Legs the next day.
LINDA HABIB, line producer: I was fairly early on in my filmmaking career and working with [director] Tony Silver. He was really interested in what Henry was doing with photographing graffiti and he realized it was an incredible part of history.
JOHN “CRASH” MATOS, graffiti artist: A lot of us were taking pictures of the trains, but we didn’t have the idea that they were going into a book. We just did it and moved on.
CHALFANT: At the time, the original culture was still alive, and people felt, like, “This is done in secret– we don’t want a bunch of people to know about it.” There were also some who didn’t want to be involved because they thought they would be in legal jeopardy if the cops ever wanted to press charges for the damage that they had done.
CRASH: I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me. If they wanna catch you, they’ll catch you.
CARLOS “MARE 139” RODRIGUEZ, graffiti artist: Because we were so young and ambitious, some of us were looking forward to the attention and also realizing that Henry and Tony were very serious filmmakers. We trusted them and went along for the ride in good faith.
CHALFANT: We did our first shooting, the [breakdance] battle between Rock Steady and Dynamic Rockers, in the spring of 1981. We shot that and a couple other scenes on our own, but then we ran out of money. It took another year before we lined up the funding. We shot the rest of it in a very short time, like three weeks in August, 1982. We’d get up at three in the morning every day until we got it into the can.
HABIB: There were many times when we were just running out there and shooting with no funding. We didn’t have money to pay the crew. We asked people to work on a deferred basis, and they did because they loved the project. We ultimately did pay everybody.
CHALFANT: It was hard to get funding– at that time the climate was very anti-graffiti. In the same period, I was trying to get a book [of graffiti photos] published, and in New York it was virtually impossible because of the way people felt about it. In official and institutional zones, it was very negative. We applied to the National Endowment of the Humanities first and we got a very positive response from the staff, but it was the early years of the Reagan administration and the infamous William Bennett was heading it. We lost a lot of time by not getting that grant due to political considerations. After that, though, we were able to get money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and they were very enthusiastic about it.
HABIB: What I really appreciated was the artistic sensibility of the writers– learning them and meeting them and seeing how seriously they took their art. It’s great to see what so many of the writers have gone on to do and know that they wouldn’t have had those opportunities had they not been graffiti writers. So I certainly see the value of it; I see some graffiti as art and some of it as not.
CHALFANT: It’s interesting that [the mayor’s office] was quite open to the idea of doing a documentary about [graffiti]. [Mayor Ed] Koch certainly made himself available. Richard Ravitch, who was the Chairman of the MTA, talked rather proudly of having flirted with the idea of negotiating with graffiti writers to officially paint a train and let it run with impunity. And then he admitted that he never thought he would really do it– he just wanted to meet them and see what made them tick.
HABIB: We had gone out [to the train yard] once and we couldn’t get in. That was in the beginning and that’s when we realized that we were going to need to get permits and the permission from the MTA if we were really going to get things covered. It was just too hairy to get into the yards– there were dogs in there.
CHALFANT: Tony’s approach was to work with the city because he wanted to be able to interview Mayor Koch and Richard Ravitch of the cops. We had to do it on the up and up. We couldn’t sneak into the yards. We had to have a deal with the city that they wouldn’t prosecute the kids we were working with.
The cop, Bernie Jacobs, was very much against doing it, but he was told by his superiors that he needed to talk to us on camera. He said, “If I had my way I wouldn’t do it, because this is only going to encourage it. My job is to stamp it out, and this isn’t helping me.”
The cops were saying graffiti’s bad because it’s an entry-level crime– you start out writing graffiti and then you go to the next step. But I found really not to be true. A lot of the graffiti writers say, “If I hadn’t had this passion, I probably would’ve been dead or locked up.” Coming out of the gang era in the early 70s, it was a very criminally-oriented society. And these kids didn’t have time for it– they were so engrossed in graffiti, which was like a full-time job. You had to get the paint, plan your campaign to get into the yards, paint. And you had to do it over and over again. It was a huge system and you couldn’t just do it once and say, “Yeah, I got up.” You had to keep getting up. It saved a lot of people from doing worse things.
CRASH: At that time, you didn’t think about the longevity or the history or how the whole hip-hop movement was blossoming around the world. I just wanted to paint. Everybody wanted to do their thing, and you didn’t think about it.
CHALFANT: We thought that eventually the city would be able to get control of it, which is what happened. [Graffiti] died out by 1989, when the city had enough money to take care of it. They had a huge federal grant to buy all these new cars along with used cars from Canada and the Kawasakis from Japan. After that, they could take a car that was painted on out of service; before, they were short on trains and couldn’t take one out without disrupting service. Erasing that graffiti took away half the subculture’s motive for being, which was to see them and have them run all throughout the city. If you didn’t have that, what was the point?
MARE 139: The big thing about the documentary for me was that I got to objectively see who we were and what we were doing for the first time. The first reaction I had was like, “Wow, we’re all somebody, we have voices, our art matters.” That was a really important moment– to realize what potential I had as an artist and what I could possibly become from doing graf.
CRASH: A lot of the people I grew up with saw the movie and were like, “Oh, aight, whatever. It is what it is.” But people outside of graf were fascinated by it because they showed people painting, the camaraderie, the music. Graf had its own clandestine type of lifestyle, so for a lot of people it opened a door to see how that worked.
HABIB: I feel really proud that it has inspired so many people and has had such longevity and notoriety and fame. [The Brooklyn Academy of Music] screening last year was amazing because a lot of us were there and some of the people in the audience are now grown up writers in there 40s and 50s, and they knew like every word of the film. It’s so precious to so many people. It’s still one of the best things I ever worked on.
CHALFANT: I’ve had people come up to me when I’ve gone to events, conferences, or screenings, and say, “Your film changed my life.” It’s wonderful to be the recipient of that kind of acknowledgment. You feel your life isn’t entirely in vain.
Text: Felipe Delerme for Pitchfork