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Bomb It Won't Be Bombing It in NYC

Graf artist Sixe at work in Barcelona in a sequence from Bomb It (Photo: Jon Reiss)

By Tobi Elkin

Ironically (or perhaps not), the people behind Bomb It, a fascinating and fast-moving film that captures the intensity of graffiti artists and culture around the world (and is reviewed here by Reeler critic Eric Kohn), weren’t able to hold a live painting event in New York City for the premiere of the film.

“We wanted to have a live painting event,” said director Jon Reiss, who only finished the film last week after two and half years of working on the film. Speaking at a press conference Sunday, Reiss said he wanted to rent a 40-ft. flatbed truck with walls and put it on 34th Street -- but was denied permission. Then he tried to plan a painting event on Chrystie Street near the site of the film’s premiere party; the neighborhood council declined his request. “There’s this idea that any graffiti is bad graffiti," he said. "Even when permission is requested [to paint on legal walls], none is given.”

And so it goes in New York City, an influential source of inspiration for the global graffiti movement but also where there are increasingly aggressive actions to crack down on graffiti as a “quality of life issue.” Not so long ago, Queens councilman Peter Vallone Jr. introduced legislation to double the penalties for graffiti. Graf artist Kiko two years ago received a sentence of six months in jail and a $25,000 fine for tagging in Queens.

Reiss’ Bomb It is a complex visual organism and social document that traces graffiti from its roots on cave walls through the vibrance of 1970s-'80s New York City and contemporary hip-hop and rap culture. Most impressive is his elegant look at graffiti across the world -- including locales in Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Tokyo, Capetown, Paris and Berlin -- not to mention memorable interviews with graf artists Cornbread, Lady Pink, Toe, TKO, Belx2 and others. Viewers learn about the artists’ motivations, their desires, fears and sources of inspiration. Most love the rush and the outlet for creative self-expression. All can’t not do graf.

Notwithstanding the debate over the use of public space, legal vs. illegal walls, graffiti crackdowns and so-called quality of life issues, Bomb It is a kind of “love poem” to New York, Reiss told reporters. But, he added, “New York is turning into the thing that New Yorkers used to hate: L.A. It’s losing, for me, the kind of character of New York." He referred to the city becoming one mass of advertising billboards, implying that the massive billboards are the real threats to locals' quality of life. “These ads are everywhere, they’re ubiquitous and more and more, they’re littering our visual landscape,” said Tracy Wares, a producer of the film. As Reiss argued, what’s a couple of tags on a federal mailbox versus a 400-sq. ft. billboard? Where does society draw the line?

The debate over graffiti as art or graffiti as vandalism is likely to rage on, at least in New York if not elsewhere. What doesn’t change: “Kids are expressing themselves and taking the power of language into their own hands." Wares said. "Who gets to be the art critic? It’s about power and economics. ... Graffiti is, in a sense, the democratization of art in a public space.”

Posted at April 30, 2007 10:23 AM

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