In 1983, the documentary Style Wars was unleashed on a public largely unfamiliar with concepts like art made with spray-paint or hip-hop. It is arguably the definitive historical snapshot of the era—one that continues to exert its influence on just about every facet of art, music, and daily life in metropolitan cities. On May 25, Catherine Keener, Public Art Films, the Common Good, and Levi's Film Workshop will be hosting a benefit and auction to fund the restoration of the original (and unfortunately damaged) negatives of the film so that it can be converted into high definition and preserved for generations to come. We had a quick chat with Catherine and Henry Chalfant, the film's coproducer, graffiti documentarian, and celebrated artist in his own right, about the event and how the film's influence has perpetually grown over the years.
VICE: How did the idea for this benefit come about?
Henry Chalfant: A while ago we discovered that the negative of the film was quite badly damaged, and I was explaining to Catherine that we were trying to raise money so we could come out with an HD version. The money it costs to fix it is much more than we have and more than the film makes from DVD sales. We thought, "How are we going to do this?" Tony Silver, the director of the film, is deceased—he died about two or three years ago—but five years before that he had investigated what it would take to do this and it was just too expensive. Then Catherine stepped up and said, "Hey, I bet that we can have a fundraiser with people I know that will allow us to come up with this." She very generously offered to do this.
Catherine Keener: [laughs] It's a very kind of Podunk operation.
It doesn't seem that way judging by the people who are contributing art to the auction. I take it that it wasn't too difficult to get your actor and artist friends to jump on board?
Catherine Keener: You'd be surprised by how many people have really been inspired by Style Wars, and how much they love it. A lot them know every single line in it. It just means a lot to people, including myself, just in terms of what's come out of it culturally, and the art, and in terms of a social movement. I really feel like it should be preserved. Henry and I were talking yesterday about how it was made possible by grants from National Endowment for the Arts and public television. It's public record, and it belongs to everyone.
Henry Chalfant: It belongs to the public—the American public owns this thing. We feel like we're the stewards of it and want to preserve it in its best possible light… forever.
I imagine there was a lot of resistance when you were first conceptualizing and shooting the film with Tony. Are you surprised that nowadays so many people want to ensure its longevity?
Henry Chalfant: It's beyond being about just graffiti and hip-hop, because it really is a story about New York. It's a big drama about New York at the time, and you have players in it like Mayor Koch who might as well have been a stand-up comic. He's wonderful in it. That's a very New York thing—to have politicians like that who have a stage presence and humor and everything. It isn't just about the kids. A lot of this I owe to Tony, who was an amazing filmmaker who conceived that idea—to make it a whole drama about New York. I'm really glad we did because I was so focused on the artists. Left to my own devices, I probably would have made something with a narrower focus.
In many ways, the film also validated graffiti as a true art form.
Henry Chalfant: Yeah, especially in the halls of intelligentsia and the museum art world. There was resistance to it. I know from trying to publish our book—-Martha Cooper and I did this book called Subway Art and there was huge this resistance to that, we couldn't get it published in New York or anywhere else in the US. We went to all of the major publishers of art books, and nobody would touch it. We had to go to Frankfurt Book Fair where we met the people from Thames & Hudson, and they jumped right on it.
What kind of artwork will be auctioned at the event?
Henry Chalfant: The artwork is magnificent. We just got a Shepard Fairey piece in the mail today, made especially for this event. It's full of references to Style Wars and spray-painting in general.
Catherine Keener: We were all amazed that he was going to contribute something; Henry emailed me a photo of it today. I was shocked at how really generous it was—that he made a one-of-a-kind piece just for us. I called all of my friends, I called people that I didn't know, I could call anyone right now [laughs]. Flea donated a bass and not only signed it, but basically tagged it all over. He's also auctioning a private bass lesson. James Franco is painting a door for us, which I'm curious to see. The famed artist Marcel Dumas made a piece for us. Spike Jonze made a drawing just for this. Dave Eggers also did something. And all of the stars from Graffiti World, lots of their art will be there too.
Henry Chalfant: We're getting some great stuff from that generation who was painting back then, like Lee, Blade, Crash, and Daze. They're going to be there; everybody's going to be there.
It looks like you've got the appropriate soundtrack for the night sorted out, too.
Catherine Keener: Adam Horovitz, DJ Kay Slay, and Questlove are all DJing. Mr. Freeze is MCing and bringing the dance crew. It's going to be the party of the summer.
Henry Chalafant: We're also going to have a contemporary B-Boy demonstration by some really good dancers.
What you think about New York City graffiti nowadays compared to when you guys were filming Style Wars? How does it stack up?
Henry Chalafant: Since we were filming the movie, things have really changed in terms of influence. When it started, pictures from New York went around the world and inspired people from California to Europe and beyond. They, in turn, started doing it and their work began to influence Americans. So there's this incredible feedback loop that's gone on. The original culture in New York kind of petered out for a bit—after the late 80s it was basically over. It was so tied to the trains, and the trains were eventually won back by the transit authority. But New York continues to be a part of the international culture that still produces amazing murals. There are lots of collaborations between French, German, and American artists. People travel all around now, and the internet allows instant viewing.
Do you think graffiti would have had a chance of gaining this sort of acceptance if it wasn't for Style Wars?
Henry Chalafant: It was really serendipitous—being at the right place at the right time. I think why it spread—apart from the media—was that the message was so powerful and universal, and that it was mostly created by people who were a minority group in the US. They were kids without access to the major organs of media or institutions. This was a voice for them, and I think people in other parts of the world identified with these kids and the way they rose above all of their challenges.
Catherine Keener: Henry, I think that you were there at this time and captured this particular thing: New York, the art scene, kids who really didn't have a means to express themselves artistically or in any other ways who just went out and did this thing and started a movement. The fact that you and Tony were there and had a camera and this amazing belief in what they were doing… maybe another film would have done it but I'm not sure it would have come together in the same way. People around the world identified with it and that's why they grabbed it and ran with it. Each and every person had a voice. Everybody became an artist.
Henry Chalafant:And that still plays to this day; there's a big contrast with doing work unsolicited on your own and being part of an institution where things are inevitably going to be limited. You're free if you're doing it yourself on the streets.
The auction will take place May 25th at 1920 Bunker (32 under 9th Ave.). There's a $250 donation to enter, which we promise will be well worth it. RSVP to email@example.com.
Check back on Monday for a link to the online auction.