A survey of street art around the world.
Dir. Jon Reiss, 2008, 93 min
There exists an underground conflict, one that’s taking place in every city, in every country, all over the Earth. We often don’t pay much attention to it, but it captures in microcosm a larger battle (although one that too many people still don’t pay attention to). It’s the war of the authorities against graffiti, which encapsulates the greater war between the individual and the corporation. Bomb It shows us the battlefields of this war, and introduces us to those who wage it.
If you are ignorant, you automatically associate all graffiti with gangs and deviancy. You are wrong. True, the can of spray paint is one tool in the gangbanger’s prowl for street turf, but to think that cracking down on alley-scribbling actually combats crime is ludicrous. There are too many people out there creating provocative and daring work on our billboards and walls for this movement to mean nothing, for it to be illegal.
After all, tagging is primal. Alexander the Great left his name on the Great Pyramids. We have an urge to put our name on things, to say “I was here.” The doc opens by discussing this urge. With this one idea as the seed, the film then unfolds and expands as it goes on. It starts with the beginnings of modern street art culture, in 1970’s Philadelphia, then traces it to the New York subway tagging fad, and follows that through graffiti’s proliferation throughout the city, and then around the world. We go from New York to São Paulo to Johannesburg to Tokyo and more.
This is a vibrant art, and seeing all the variations and styles that different artists come up with is delightful. From the bold calligraphy of New York signatures to the stencil work of Paris, this doc acts as a great primer on the form, better than any gallery or coffee table book could be. The social message of the artists are just as diverse. One Parisian wants to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, while South Africans reminisce on how tagging was an act of true, dangerous rebellion during Apartheid. The street is a medium for the powerless to grab some small bit of power through freedom of expression. Since they have so little, the public space is their only avenue.
And yet the establishment hounds them at every turn, and erases their art. The film allows the stewards of the law, including George Kelling, author of the “broken windows” theory, to have their say. They mostly hang themselves with their own words, which are generally ignorant and barely tinged with racism. Pretending that combatting graffiti is anything more than gussying things up in lieu of affecting any real social change is foolery.
While these creative-types are pushed out, advertising flows freely over all of society. In fact, modern Madison Avenue takes a lot of cues from graffiti. Ever wonder where they got the idea to make buses into billboards? Now, I don’t know about you, but I find advertising far more offensive than graffiti. One is a form of expression, the other is a cynical ploy to make you feel like you need a product, often trying to make you feel bad about yourself in the process. It permeates our world, to the point where we barely even notice it. Ads are omnipresent because the people behind them buy up all of our supposedly public space. Money = speech. Like I said, the corporation vs. the individual.
Director Jon Reiss brings a dangerous sensibility to this film that matches it perfectly to its subject. He follows the bombers at night, animates the art, and uses a blaring, in-your-face hip-hop soundtrack. It’s the kind of work that scares conservatives. Bomb It will make you want to run out, buy a can of spray paint, and deface a piece of corporate property. It’s the perfect summary of both the history, content, and ethos of an art form. It’s a doc full of cocky vitality, and it’ll light a fire under the ass of anyone who sees it.