I was extremely excited when I got this opportunity to blog on Huffington Post not only because I am an avid reader and fan of the site - but because I feel that people who read the Huffington Post would be a natural audience for my film Bomb It about the global explosion of graffiti culture and the subsequent war going on over who controls public space.
I embarked on this project two and a half years ago when I was at a dinner party and an exec who had seen my film about rave culture Better Living Through Circuitry said that his company was going to make a film about graffiti writers - a light bulb went off in my head - and I told him - "You don't want to make a narrative film about graffiti - you want to make a doc - there hasn't been a good one in years". He smiled and said maybe that could be a dvd extra - but we don't do docs.
But my mind had started turning. I have always been a lover of outsider art Wolfi, Henry Darger etc. (I once traveled five hours from Paris to see Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Ideal) and graffiti struck me as one of the most extreme forms of outsider art - here are a group of kids (and adults) who risk their lives for their art and creative expression.
I was of course fascinated by the notion that humankind has been compelled to write on walls for thousands of years. The very act itself addresses the eternal human quest for some form of immortality in the face of a vast universe - some universal desire to state "I was here" - which I feel drives a good deal of human creation, not just graffiti.
I quickly found out that graff is much more than beautiful murals on the street. As we traveled the world, we discovered that there is a worldwide battle over public space. The 'quality of life laws' and the broken windows theory that support those laws had spread from New York City to Europe and to every other corner of the earth with severe punishments. The exploration of this battle and its consequences became the driving force of the film.
The controversy brings up some very essential questions: What is the nature of art? Who determines what is art and what is not art? Who controls freedom of speech? Who controls public space? Why are some manifestations in public space that are offensive to many people sanctioned (billboards and strip malls) and others are criminalized (graffiti).
We as a society assume that billboards, since they are a commercial enterprise, must be legal. Also most people assume that there must be some large fee paid by advertisers to the city for the right to put up their ads. Perhaps those billboards are an important source of income for cities so desperate for cash. Actually many billboards - especially in Los Angeles - are in fact illegal. A form of sanctioned, accepted, graff if you will. Add insult to injury, the fees paid by billboard companies for the right to have their commercials sprawled across the urban landscape is often as low as twenty dollars a year. The ultimate irony is that a kid could face years in prison for defacing a billboard that is in fact illegal in itself.