This 1976 Mini-Documentary Explores The Complexity of Graffiti Culture Before ‘Style Wars’ (Video)
It the late ’70s, a distinctively rebellious trend began to populate the walls, monuments, and empty spaces of New York City, one that would go on to become a founding principle of Hip-Hop culture. Graffiti, despite having been around for millennia, experienced a surge in popularity in the late 20th century, partly due to external forces like poverty and social unrest but also because of that innately human quality of a strong desire for self-expression. In 1976, the BBC produced a small-scale (but nonetheless informative) documentary on the burgeoning street culture, interviewing not only the taggers, but also local business owners, civic leaders, passersby, and more.
Called Watching My Name Go By, the 25-minute film documents the causes, styles, meanings, pros, and cons of graffiti at a time when public parks, monuments, and subway cars were replete with the tags of artists, writing crews, and gangs. A well-balanced depiction of supporters and detractors, the opinions of those interviewed vary from graffiti being “an act of deliberate vandalism” to it having “tremendous beauty involved,” but the general consensus is that of graffiti being seen as a form of self-identification, with little mention of the art form’s potential as a tool for socio-political expression (as, for example, it’s been used in recent weeks to scrawl “Black Lives Matter” on a statue of Columbus). The film also explores graffiti’s appeal to youth from all economic backgrounds, abolishing the preconceived notion of it being something only done by kids from poor and broken homes.
The film’s title references the graffiti on subway cars, a now defunct aspect of New York City’s underground counter-culture that has been sanitized into oblivion. In its early days, graffiiti spray-painted onto subway cars provided a kind of mobile advertisement, with kids in the Bronx able to see their names whiz by them on a subway in Brooklyn. “The special attraction is on the subway cars, they really do a bang-up job,” a woman interviewed shares. “The thing that I find exciting is waiting for the subway train and sometimes you get a glorious one decorated like a birthday cake, everything but the sparklers.” An official explains that “the public see these cars all marked up, and they feel if these people can do this to the trains, then it indicates a failure of the system to protect its property and if it can’t protect its property how it’s [sic] going to protect its passengers?”
You can watch the whole film here.