"People believe that they live in a kind of neutral public space. What they don't realize is that what is neutral to them, what's a neutral, comfortable public space to them may actually be excluding a lot of people." - Susan A. Phillip, author of "Wallbangin"
"This is me. Hello world. I'm fuckin here." - Skuf
There is a war being waged. Bombers are coasting through the night, leaving the areas that they touch turned completely upside-down. Unrecognizable. The war has been raging for over 40 years across multiple continents and you probably didn't even realize it was happening.
The battleground is not Basra, or Kabul, or Kosovo. It is set against the urban backdrop of any city you live in, and probably any city you have ever been to.
The bombers are not planes. They are graffiti artists and taggers, throwing up pieces on any space that will hold marker ink or spay paint.
"The city was in such ugly condition and they're not doing nothing...I'll give you something to do. Write write write, get up get up get up, bomb bomb bomb. That's why they say bomb the system." Stay High 149 / Brooklyn
"There was an explosion of graffiti in Paris to the point where the people didn't understand what was happening. We all came from the outskirts to tear up Paris." - Shuck 2 / Paris
"I bomb because I want to, because I am sick of Germany, because the current social system is fucked up." - CBK Crew / Berlin
One thing (among many) the new documentary Bomb It accomplishes magnificently is lending a human element to the faceless graffiti anyone walking down the street has seen in any of the cities on the five continents visited by filmmaker Jon Reiss (Better Living Through Circuitry) and his crew.
What the film reveals is that graffiti is a form of expression for the voices that feel they cannot be heard otherwise. Whether it's the residents of dilapidated Brooklyn in the 1970's, mixed race teenagers in South Africa struggling to find identity during Apartheid in the late 1980's, or any number of youths existing on the fringes of society today, feeling shunned by what is considered "normal' civilization, Bomb It managed to uncover it all.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As people are marginalized, they find new ways to attack the institution that sent them to the outskirts of society, regardless of whether the root is poverty, neglect, fear, or the sterile cityscape of gentrification.
"We use the written word - typographic terrorism." Wagi / Sao Paolo
As the film gives a brief history of graffiti and gradually lays bare each of the underpinnings for the movement in America, France, England, Spain, Holland, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, and Japan, it works its way toward a final discussion of public space.
"Well you can't have a democracy without public space," said billboard subverter Ron English. "There no point in having a voice or a concept or an idea if you can't disseminate it."
Areas not privately owned and paid for, at least in part, by tax dollars are designated public spaces. Should these be forums for artists when gaining pleasure from viewing art is just as subjective as finding peace in a neutral blank space?
"Are we supposed to only go to art school and only hang our artwork in these designated spots," asks artist Pink. "If there was no rebellion in our society, we would be stagnant."
The film balances the opinions of the artists with community members and activists, with one citing ties between urban decay, gang activity and graffiti. Another calls it "anarchy" when taggers and bombers think they can throw up anywhere they please.
But as many of the artists point out in the film, is their work really more offensive than a giant, 10-story picture of some guy in his underwear, "visually raping you," as they say, while hawking a product? The capitalistic favoritism seems to disturb them. The city cracks down mightily on graffiti artists, but allows Clear Channel to buy up all the billboard and building facade space it wants.
It is not a struggle exclusive to graffiti artists either. Islands of LA is an organization increasingly at odds with the city for turning traffic islands -- deemed public space -- into "territories of art." The group Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight was formed to combat the city of LA's leniency on billboard advertisers violating size guidelines (around 4,000 currently in violation). An LA public high school blogged about a "Graffiti 101" assignment for students "to record the ways you are confronted by messages as you travel to and from school on a daily basis," including billboard art and city signage.
And these are just Los Angeles based issues concerning public space. Where graffiti is concerned, city officials have been trying to slow it down for over 30 years now. Coincidentally, the aesthetic has permeated many of the mainstream marketing campaigns that are then defaced by bombers who are still holding it down on the streets.
And no matter what you take away from those who simply get juiced from getting out there and dangling from an overpass to get their artwork seen, there will always be a blank space somewhere, tucked away in the urban jungle, waiting to get bombed.
Bomb It, the Global Graffiti Film is screening across the U.S. now. Los Angeles theatrical premiere June 6 - June 12, 2008.