Review: Style Wars and Beautiful Losers
Directed by: Tony Silver with Henry Chalfant
Featuring: Ed Koch versus various New York B-boys, MCs, DJs and graffiti artists
Released by: Wienerworld
Directed by: Aaron Rose with Joshua Leonard
Featuring: Mike Mills, Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kigallen, Ed Templeton and many more
Released by: Madman Cinema
Art that’s laden with street culture references seems to be a fixture in mainstream galleries these days, and it’s easy to wonder if the heart and edge in the original form has been lost. In its infancy, back in the early ’70s, taggers (bombers) were in experimentation mode. Basic scrawl developed into an intricate language of its own. Breakdancing and ‘beats’ were intermeshed with street art and a new, very misinterpreted, movement was created.
Style Wars, shot in 1983, documents the tension between bombers and graffiti artists, particularly those using the subway and trains as a canvas for their work. Director Tony Silver cleverly captures the tension between graffiti artists and bombers and also the battle between the artists and civic authorities, with New York Mayor Ed Koch having a fair bit to say about it all.
Silver interviews young teens, established artists, parents, officials and the general public. The result is a mass of layered viewpoints, varying from those who see the art form as a “whole miserable subculture” to those who meet the artists at work, and find new respect for the care and emotional investment going into the pieces.
The artists, some of whom are only 14, come across as articulate and aware. Silver sensitively shows the attachment they have to their work as well as the integrity in it. The authorities come off as narrow-minded, particularly Mayor Koch who suggests that the ‘problem’ could be solved with the parents simply saying, “it’s the wrong thing to do”. It’s these interviews that make you grin – the kids really do win with intelligence and insight. The fuddy-duddies are left mostly chasing the artists and their own tails.
Shot in 2008, Beautiful Losers looks at where the form has got to and picks up where Style Wars left off. It charts the careers of a loose-knit group of multi-disciplinary artists who were (and still are) influenced by skateboarding, punk, graffiti and hip-hop. The group innocently began their work in the ’80s, while still in their youth, and wanted to ‘make stuff’ but not necessarily dollars. Now, in their late thirties and forties, they each still make art with the same undefiled approach; the difference now is that some of the work is for the mainstream market and it’s also profitable.
Combining retro footage with contemporary interviews against an original soundtrack by Beastie Boys producer Money Mark, the documentary introduces the motley bunch of artists including Mike Mills, Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kigallen and Ed Templeton. The artists explain their cultural inspirations from the point when they first began “making junk” to where they’re at now – using their roots in street culture for inspiration.
Director Aaron Rose meshes hand-held footage and clever editing to make an edgy aesthetic mirroring the artists’ views and lifestyles perfectly. This, combined with a complete lack of pretension along with a whole lot of heart, makes Beautiful Losers endearing, current and inspired.
Beautiful Losers is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until Sunday, 5 July, and will be released on DVD through Madman.
Style Wars is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, from 9-12 July.
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