Style Wars / Henry Chalfant bringing back that ol’ New York Rap
When an anonymous photographer started documenting graffiti-covered trains in New York in the 1970s, nobody seemed to take much notice.
Or so Henry Chalfant thought. The truth was, plenty of the city’s graffiti writers saw him – they just didn’t trust him.
“I was just doing it because it was fun, it wasn’t my job,” he says. “I didn’t even meet any writers until several years into it. Of course, I understood later that they saw me but nobody would approach me because I was middle-aged, caucasian and therefore could quite possibly be a cop.”
Eventually, Chalfant would come to know the creators of much of the graffiti he had photographed and parlayed that relationship into the seminal 1983 documentary about graffiti and hip-hop culture, Style Wars.
He went on to co-author the books Subway Art and Spray Can Art, providing an anthropological perspective on the rise of urban street cultures and making him one of the world’s foremost authorities on New York street art of the 1970s and 1980s. Chalfant and director, Tony Silver, tackled these projects at a time when New York City was in crisis – debt-ridden, essential services were being shuttered and, like many cities across America, “white flight” had left some inner-city neighbourhoods in disarray.
In this environment, graffiti and hip hop flourished.
“Back in those days when we were working on the film, graffiti was a big issue – not really what it was but what it symbolised,” he says. “And it symbolised, as people were fond of saying, that ‘you’ve lost control’.”