Longtime New Yorkers remember that riding the subway wasn’t always the shiny experience it is today. Back in the 1970s and early 80s, a group of ghetto kids—armed with spray paint and the pre-PlayStation impulse to create—turned trains into giant, moving canvasses. Thus marked the birth of wild-style graffiti, whose complex letter forms turned the artists (or “writers”) into local celebrities—and enemies of a bureaucracy seeking to regain control of its transit system.
Some 20 years after a mid-’80s crackdown started to deliver spotless trains, graffiti artist Carlos Rodriguez and New York design firm Code and Theory have teamed up to (virtually) rebuild the streets that sparked the movement. Style Wars (www.stylewars.com), which launched in November, is as close as you’re going to get to a tour of the New York City streets circa 1982.
The website takes its name from—and was inspired by—Tony Silver’s 1983 film, Style Wars, which is available for purchase here in its 2003 two-disc DVD format, Style Wars: Revisited, featuring additional footage and interviews. Rodriguez, associate producer of the DVD and Style Wars’ cocreator, says the site pays respect to the pureness of intent in the moment before graffiti was embraced by the mainstream.
“We were making something out of nothing,” says Rodriguez, who appeared in the movie under his tag name, Mare 139. “And that’s what we wanted to illustrate. When I look at breakers flipping on old mattresses, I see that resourcefulness. That’s the emotional draw I was going for.” Today, when corporations including Nike and Coca-Cola tap graffiti artists like Haze and Tats Cru to infuse their brands with street cred, it’s clear, Rodriguez says, that people long for that era’s authenticity.
Like the subject it covers, Style Wars breaks design conventions. The site is presented as one long, single-paged panorama, which moves horizontally through a photographic collage of the urban landscape. The user can stop at features like a gallery of painted trains, discussion boards and interviews with both contemporary artists and legends of the era, updated monthly. Throughout, photographs depict emerging hip-hop culture: the Rock Steady Crew poses; break-dancers show off on dirty mattresses; and a young “Dez,” now Hot 97’s DJ Kay Slay—stands at a turntable. Meanwhile, the concrete walls that serve as a visual backdrop are covered in wild-style art.
“The site is a blueprint of a culture,” he says, “its history and legacy. And people have always looked at documents like this to get a firmer grasp of the pioneers, the roots, the styles and the language. Everyone’s always looking back to inspire them for the future.”
That’s certainly the case on Style Wars’ discussion board, where young graffiti writers post emotional diatribes, as well as original art. They exchange favorite movie quotes, discuss the political nature of their craft and argue the virtues of painting on (or “bombing”) trucks vs. trains—landing eventually on the upshot that “it doesn’t matter, just don’t get caught.” The maxim might also serve for the art form in general.
In less expert hands, the project might have devolved into a vacation slide show: “My Trip to the Ghetto, 1982.” Instead, the viewer is immersed in what Code and Theory creative director Brandon Ralf calls “The Style Wars City.” The collage is assembled from the photography of Henry Chalfant, coproducer of the film, whose hard-earned trust of circumspect graffiti writers can be seen in collections like Subway Art. Credit Chalfant’s photo reportage for the intimacy with which stylewars.com presents an often out-of-reach world.
“Growing up, [finding inspiration] was as simple as jumping on the subway,” says David Villorente, aka Chino BYI, a columnist for The Source. “You could catch this moving gallery to study the art and, from that, create your own style and hone your craft.” He sees the site as a service to people who are too young to have experienced the era firsthand.
As the trains rush by in Style Wars’ Flash-based moving gallery, you can almost hear Detective Bernie Jacobs from the 1983 movie, lodging his nasal complaint, made classic by way of Freudian slip: “Is that an art? I don’t know. I’m not an art crim—critic, but I can sure as hell tell you that’s a crime.” Set that statement against a Chalfant image on Style Wars of a writer in an “Art is not a Crime” T-shirt and you get a feeling of how thick the tensions were.
In the end, graffiti was bigger than any of its pioneers could have anticipated, although subway bombing has become something of a lost art form. “I like to say we lost the war on the trains,” says Rodriguez, “but we won the world.”