'Style Wars': Documenting Graffiti Artists

Hip Hop Film Recounts Early History of NYC Subway Outlaws

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Min One at City Hall Layup, NYC 1982

Min One at City Hall Layup, NYC 1982. Courtesy Henry Chalfant hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Henry Chalfant

"Mean Dez Skeme" on the Broadway Local, NYC. Henry Chalfant hide caption

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itoggle caption Henry Chalfant
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In the early 1980s, New York kids reacted to the urban decay and poverty around them with a burst of creative self-expression that became known as hip hop: rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti art.

Subway trains were the white canvasses graffiti writers used to make their mark on the world. In 1983, PBS aired Style Wars, a documentary chronicling the early days of hip hop, when young graffiti "taggers" used to spray their names on subway trains for fame, to the chagrin of authorities and their parents. NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks back on the film, which has just been re-released on DVD with updated material.

Style Wars celebrates the graffiti artists' modern-day hieroglyphics, and captures the days and nights when the young outlaws ruled the subway lines.

The film follows notorious graffiti writers such as Min One, Dez, Iz and Seen as they sneak through subway tunnels to train yards, avoiding the ominous electric third rails. Armed with cans of Krylon spray paint, they outrun transit police to create mural masterpieces with block letters and cartoon figures, all in the name of fame. Style Wars documents the thrill of seeing their so-called "wild style" graffiti tags on passing subway trains throughout the city.

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