“Style Wars”: This 1983 documentary focused on NYC’s break dancing and graffiti street culture

By on May 16, 2017

In early 1984, the PBS network premiered Style Wars, a documentary that chronicled New York City’s youthful street culture, focusing in on two of its most exciting and polarizing facets — break dancing and graffiti — from its earliest days in the ’70s onward through what was then the present day, the early ’80s. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

Today, Style Wars – directed by Tony Silver and produced in collaboration with Henry Chalfant — is considered an indispensable document of NYC street culture in the early ’80s, capturing what was quite literally a dynamic but vanishing urban environment.

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The film simultaneously embraces both the spirit of the then-still relatively new hip-hop movement and the world of NYC street art — its styles, techniques, terms and rules — which was largely being created on the spot by urban teens who were using graffiti as a new visual language to express themselves creatively in bold, oversized and colorful ways (imagery that would soon be visible in other ways, including fashion and tattoos).

The film focuses in particular on how New York City’s rundown metro subway system’s underground tunnels — in addition to uptown city streets, playgrounds and parks, parking lot walls and handball courts, etc. etc. — had all become both a canvas and a battleground to NYC’s legendary kings of graffiti, all to an early ’80s hip-hop soundtrack.

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Tony Silver and Seen in the 6 yard, The Bronx, 1982

Style Wars features extensive interviews with graffiti documentarian (and the film’s co-producer) Henry Chalfant; then New York City mayor Ed Koch (the city’s mayor from 1978-1990); chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway system, Richard Ravitch; one-armed graffiti writer Case/Kase 2; graffiti writer Skeme and his mother, graffiti “villain” Cap; graffiti writers Dondi, Seen; and Shy 147; breakdancer Crazy Legs of the Rock Steady crew; and various NYC cops, art critics, subway maintenance workers, as well as regular “people on the street.”

Chalfant — who had started out as a sculptor in New York City during the 1970s — eventually turned to both photography and film.

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Henry Chalfant (photo by Martha Cooper)

He became fascinated by the graffiti and street art that taken over all public space in the city, especially in the subways, and after photographing hundreds of examples, which were very quickly being removed by authorities, he realized that he needed to document the work with an eye towards preserving what he was seeing, in the process becoming one of the foremost authorities on NYC subway and street art.

Chalfant ended up meeting break dancers Frosty Freeze and Crazy Legs — he’d read about breaking in a Village Voice piece — and became interested in documenting the music of hip-hop and the dance styles that were developing in tandem with the street art he was photographing, recognizing that it represented a creative expression of urban youth across class and racial lines, a cross-section of New York City’s immigrant cultures and long-time residents.

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Chalfant originally intended to make a documentary about break dancing but felt that he did not have enough interesting footage, which is what led him to expanding the idea to include graffiti art, which had long been associated with hip-hop culture.

He initially ran into some problems because many of the graffiti artists didn’t want to find themselves in legal trouble, if the cops ever wanted to press charges for the damage that they had done, and Chalfant eventually realized that to document a lot of the work he was going to need the cooperation of the mayor’s office and the NYPD.

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At the time, Mayor Koch’s office were spending quite a lot of money for a marketing and advertising campaign that stressed negative aspects of graffiti and pointing out that it was essentially vandalism, a crime, a blight on the environment.

Koch wanted to build high fences that would block off the entrances to subways where graffiti artists were creating their work.

There were also NYPD guard dogs that were brought into those areas to scare off potential graffiti artists.

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Chalfant paired up with NYC native Tony Silver — born David Anthony Silver in Manhattan, in 1935 — who had gone to Columbia University and pursued acting before turning to filmmaking.

Silver’s first film, 1970’s The Miss Nude America Movie, documented the strange journey of a wheelchair-bound boy, founder of Naked City, Indiana. The film was shown at the New York Film Festival.

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As Chalfant and fellow filmmaker Tony Silver began to explore the world of graffiti artists, they recognized there was a need for a documentary film that would expose the existing tensions between graffiti artists — or graffiti writers, as they liked to be called — and those who wanted to shut them down.

The focus eventually began to shift more towards the street art and so b-boying and rapping are covering to a lesser extent in the film, even though the film’s soundtrack features great tracks recorded by the Sugarhill Gang, the Treacherous Three, the Fearless Four, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, among others.

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At the time they began to work on Style Wars, there were already a number of film projects being undertaken.

One of those was Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, which featured real-life DJs, MCs, graffiti writers, and b-boys as actors in the film, set in the South Bronx.

There were notable appearances by the Rock Steady Crew, MCs the Cold Crush Brothers and Grandmaster Caz, and DJs including Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, as well as graffiti writers like Dondi, whose work can be seen in the opening credits, decorating passing subway cars.

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While they were in the process of editing Style Wars, the filmmakers also became aware of a exploitative cash-in Hollywood feature called Beat Street, which the filmmakers both though would fictionalize and further sensationalize aspects of what their film hoped to shine a spotlight on.

The 1984 film — directed by Stan Lathan for Orion Pictures — nevertheless captures snapshots of the early NYC beat boy culture with cameos by people like DJ Kool Herc.

Self-funding their project initially, Silver and Chalfant began shooting whatever they could, including a break dance “battle” — filmed in the spring of 1981 at a rollerskating disco in Queens NY — between Rock Steady and Dynamic Rockers, during which they were going to show what “real” breaking was like for the audience who had read that same Village Voice article.

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Chalfant was invited to do a slide show presentation of this battle in SoHo, and invited Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee — two of NYC’s best known rappers — to perform for the audience while they viewed photos he’d taken.

Meanwhile, a rival crew, called the Ball Busters — who were actually a Dominican gang and not really a “breaking” crew — found out that the Dynamic Rockers were doing this dancing on their turf, and showed up ready to fight.

The ensuing fisticuffs and gunplay led to problems for Chalfant and the SoHo venue, who weren’t prepared to deal with the trouble.

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The filmmakers eventually ran out of money, and after a long break, they were finally able to secure some funds from Channel 4 in the UK, in exchange for a license to broadcast the finished film. This enabled them to resume shooting, for a period of three weeks in August 1982.

Style Wars was ultimately edited to a one-hour broadcast version — we’ve got the 70-minute version over on Night Flight Plus and there’s additionally an 111-minute “Director’s Cut” version as well — and then hit the festival film circuit.

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It was awarded the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the 1983 at the United States Film and Video Festival, a forerunner of what would become the Sundance Film Festival (this is why some sources claim the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance).

It also screened and won awards from the Chicago, Houston and Athens Film Festivals; the Grand Prize at the Montreal Festival of Films on Art; and the Prized Pieces Award, National Black Programming Consortium.

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There was a single showing of the 16mm film at a 600-seat movie theater in Times Square in NYC (where Wild Style had screened successfully for quite a while) but that was it as far as public showings.

Style Wars was eventually broadcast on the PBS network on January 18, 1984. Bootleg VHS tapes of the PBS broadcast version of Style Wars were widely circulated for years until the filmmaker’s were able to secure additional funds to complete the film, blowing it up to 35mm, for subsequent screenings.

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Decades later, Style Wars has been an “official selection” at the following film fests: RiverRun Film Festival, Cinema Paradise/Honolulu 2004; Tribeca Film Festival, New York 2003; Edinburgh International Film Festival 2003; Stockholm International Film Festival 2003; Oulu (Finland) Music Film & Video Festival 2003; H2O International Film Festival (New York) 2003; Bergen (Norway) International Film Festival 2003; Barcelona In-Edit Music Film Festival (Audience Award) 2003; Black Soil Film Festival (Rotterdam) 2003; Walker Art Center, Siskel Film Center, International House of Philadelphia 2003; REVelation Film Festival (Perth, Australia) 2002; and, an official selection at the Toronto and Sydney International Film Festivals.

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In 1995, Silver and Chalfant began the process to digitize Style Wars, after raising the money for the film’s restoration almost entirely through fan-based donations. Actress Catherine Keener recruited celebrities from the world of film to contribute artworks they had made for a fundraising auction; a successful Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to produce the outtakes, and have also produced an additional 21-minute film about the editing of the original Style Wars.

In 2003, Silver and Chalfant produced a companion film, Style Wars: Revisited, which documented the lives of the original graffiti writers twenty years later.

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Following Style Wars, Tony Silver worked in the film industry creating trailers for promotional material for films and television. He received a Clio Award for his trailer for Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon.

He directed and produced a feature documentary, Arisman Facing The Audience, tracing the artistic and spiritual journeys from Manhattan to Guangzhou, China of Marshall Arisman, master painter, teacher, and storyteller, Marshall Arisman.

Silver’s public television film Anita Ellis, For The Record — which was broadcast on PBS and in England, Germany and Scandinavia — documented a rare recording session by the legendary jazz-pop singer with the pianist Ellis Larkins.

He died at his home in Los Angeles, on February 1, 2008. He was 72.

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Chalfant, meanwhile, co-authored the book Subway Art (1984), and also co-authored the book Spraycan Art (with James Prigoff), which documented the global expansion of graffiti, in 1987.

Chalfant has also co-directed with Rita Fecher a documentary on South Bronx gangs, Flyin’ Cut Sleeves (1994), and directed From Mambo to Hip Hop (2006) portraying two generations of Latino youth growing up in the South Bronx.

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More recently he has been involved with the Big Graffiti Archive, a work of visual anthropology and one of the seminal documents of American popular culture in the late twentieth century.

A book — which features Chalfant’s photographs of graffiti artwork on some 800 trains — was designed by Max Hergenrother and there also additional video interviews with the artists of the era, produced by Carl Weston of Videograf Productions.

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Watch Style Wars on Night Flight Plus and be sure to check out some of our other street art and street music-related posts, including Graffiti Rock and also our post about Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, here on the Night Flight blog.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.