May 1, 2007
Paint Your Enemy (But Do It Nice)
"I was, after the fashion of humanity, in love with my name, and, as young educated people commonly do, I wrote it everywhere."
-Goethe, Poetry and Truth, 1811
Oh, sweet, charmed and happy life. Lucky me, surrounded by free popcorns and a vitamin water (naturally flavored but artificially preserved) on this Friday afternoon. I stretch my legs, play with my toes, put my neck on the edge of the mini coach and relax while the comfort takes me... it takes me... take me... SPLASH! WHAT WAS T-H-A-T!?? A part of my body has a green paint, Pollock style. Am I a bleeding alien? I was just bombed. Director and producer Jon Reiss' Bomb It starts powerfully with a mix of animations after a night-vision intrusion that welcomes the spectator to the global world of graffiti. It's making a lot of noise in Tribeca, while its co-producer and DP Tracy Wares spreads the word passionately--well deserved after risking her life through all kind of dangerous places. This documentary has confronted everyone (a graffiti exhibition planned for the premiere was thumbed down) and raises very complex issues about art, social justice, public space and law among other indirect problems. "Don't" seems to be the magic word to stay more activist than ever. Like those alternative guys called Rage Against The Machine claimed in 1991 about the freedom of political prisoners and re-interpreted the American dreams:
"...we're comin' back then with another bombtrack... think ya know what it's all about..."
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where graffiti was first popular through a comedy group called Los Vergara, spray paintings in my streets were generally ugly and disrespectful. Los Vergara appeared without art but with content to express in some way that graffiti must be something else, and also to wake up people. "Fascist are trembling: Maradona is lefty" or "Everybody promises, Nobody accomplishes it... vote Nobody" were some of the graffitis that later on evolved into fútbol (soccer) gangs battles, dirty money political official campaigns, and then came the art. Art that in most of the cities is consider a felony, though it's very difficult to establish where it's harmful and where not. The only crime where people sign their names raises another issue: what is or should be considered a crime? In the dictionary it goes from an action that is injurious and legally prohibited, to a gray zone of any offense. The essence of graffiti in itself is rebellion. If the government allows it in some places, some graffiti artists could agree to stick to the designated areas, but others would be tempted to use the forbidden zones. As we can see during the first part of Bomb It in New York and Philadelphia, "my name to the world" is probably one of the biggest purposes in graffiti. Cornbread explains it clearly: "The more they said my name, the more I wrote it". The train was also used in this city as an alternative way of expression and chatting: a greeting would appear in a car, and a few days later the response would be ready on another. Some people call them graffiti artist or writers. Many of them consider themselves "bombers". It's about a war against the system. PHFSH!. My left leg is red now... hold on a minute, weren't my jeans blue?
"Something must be done about vengeance, a badge and a gun, 'cause I'll rip the mike, rip the stage, rip the system, I was born to rage against 'em."
The team effort in this global project resulted in around 400 hours of footage (yes, two zeros), and it was put together to great effect by Salvadorian Alex Márquez and Cuban-American Jessica Hernández who the footage with different kind of formats (cartoons, animations, and archive footage). Less than two hours of footage (.5%) made the cut, rearranged with a very tight rhythm and creative transitions. Venezuelan David Garcia completes--with a few more co-producers--the main crew as music supervisor. Latinos, women and other punished labels of the society are here unified to be unlabeled paradoxically through another label... well, a tag: "bomb it". Like those tags and paintings that used to appear in caves since the beginning of the human kind. Today we have the subway tunnels: dangerous but peaceful too.
"Im a brother with a furious mind, Action must be taken, we dont need the key, We'll break in."
The movie becomes global while the screen spatters my fingers with black and my body slowly becomes a graffiti. In Paris, Blek Le Rat started painting all around the only free animals in the city: rats (casual acronym for "rage against the system"?). Le monsieur asks permission to the homeless people--not to the State--to paint on the wall where they camp as a response against racism and calling for social justice. Amsterdam is witness of another interesting case: a kindergarten teacher during the day, graffiti artist at night. Eyeballs watching the world, playing as a kid. Another kind of eyeballs take care of London with Big Digital Screen Brother watching you: "Get off the bicycle". The woman obeys immediately. The public space is neutral; it's for everyone, but it excludes many people. Surveillance transforms it into a blurred space. I wonder if they can also push a button from the main control and fix the water fountain... I'm so thirsty. In Berlin, CBK take it seriously: he does it for his family and friends, a commitment for ever. Every region has an interesting approach. Barcelona's artists use graffiti as therapy and to provide art to the people who can't afford expensive museums. They use some restricted inoffensive zones to paint non-codified graffiti for everyone. An old lady loves how the street has a beautiful color now, while the old man threatens the artists: "you'll clean it with your tongue". A tongue that this time speaks through the hands.
"Now I got no patience, so sick of complacence, with the D the E the F the I the A the N the C the E"
A latex hand is signing my feet in the darkness of the theater while the travel continues to Capetown. A city that with the Apartheid was divided in black, white and colored. Graffiti unites them with many more colors. Political awareness and art are a fantasy for poor people in search of very basic things to survive. The artists spray a school in front of the fascinated looks and smiles. But in São Paulo there are no smiles anymore. It's a dragon that eats all, like New York in the '70s. Guns are probably cheaper than spray cans. It's the perfect place with the wrong people for some, a scary place with great people for others. The words order doesn't alter the meaning: chaos. A police ask Os Gemeos if they have permission to paint that big funny animal in the middle of a wall: "Well, it's an old work about ambient preservation... we're just retouching it, cool?". The audience burst into laughter. Nor the police. They just get into the patrol car again, not worried about the war of words and colors but about the war of bullets in the favelas. Inside the most humiliating sewer and other subterranean places Zezão finds a public/private space to paint with a healing power as a therapy against depression. He also finds a family living there who soon become his family, too. A dream: take them out of that hole. It's not the same as the hole found by Tokyo's bomber. A controlled city with some cracks that can be penetrated. A woman changes the state from hate and angst to happiness and her graffitis change with her.
"The finger to the land of the chains What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy!"
And here we are. In the land of Jon Reiss and his film-bombers: Los Angeles, where not everybody is un ángel. Here the graffiti takes at least three forms: the artists' tags, the gangs' tags and the T.A.G. (Totally Against Graffitis). This organization recognized as one of the best national public programs has interesting educational activities against graffiti vandalism and children safety, working with a reward program: if your little boy reports a graffiti act he and his school will obtain cool prizes. Although the intention of getting the kids involved is wonderful, I just hope they don't win any super-sized, fast-food party or tickets to NASCAR. I'm also Totally Against Gaming your kid in a S.H.A.K.T.I. warrior activity--web store included--with the good soldiers vs. the good-looking bad guys. I prefer Sesame Street style and creative, educational awards. Nevertheless, that's another story and it's true that some kind of anarchy is taking the control of the streets with an ego that can't stop. For those who obey the billboards Ron English have a second view if you turn around to avoid being raped by the ads (and Shepard Fairey has a third one). For those whose graffitis are being commercialized, good... they must also pay debts. For those who think that doing money with graffitis turns you into an entrepreneur, the graffiti life continues in the shadows.
"Yes I know my enemies: They're the teachers who taught me to fight me. Conformity... submission... ignorance... hypocrisy... brutality..."
I leave the theater with a moral conflict. Although I love those big walls, boats, schools and complete buildings around the world with incredibly beautiful graffitis, I don't like to see graffitis wherever they want. While graffiti bombers, artists, writers, or painters are being jailed, many rapists and thieves remain free, but it doesn't mean that the guy who sprayed that car in the street shouldn't be prosecuted. The situation is complex and as urgent as their call for social justice. I have an original Nic One's graffiti in my Metrocard. Am I a criminal? I'll use it anyway, it still has credit. I hope nobody stops me while I travel through the spiritual and visual vacuum of the post-Giuliani subway system. Now it's clean and bright, although the "E" train is not running this weekend, a shuttle bus is replacing the "1", and the "L" will soon substitute employees with robots. Now I wonder... is my blog a graffiti?
(Written for NYRemezcla)
Tribeca Film Festival 2007, New York
World Documentary Competition
2007, U.S.A., 93 min., World Premiere
Director/Screenwriter: Jon Reiss
Tuesday, May 1, 9:15pm (Clearview Chelsea West)
Friday, May 4, 10:30pm (Regal Battery Park Cinemas)
Sunday, May 6, 5:30pm (AMC Village VII)