The graffiti film Bomb It! premiered in Iceland at the Reykjavik film festival. Los Angeles director Jon Reiss attended the first screening and took part in a Q&A afterwards. He also sat on a panel with a few of Reykjavik’s artists, activists and the Central City Director, Jakob Frímann Magnússon, to discuss the issue of graffiti in the city. After the panel, Grapevine sat down with Jon to learn a little more about his film and the graffiti scene in general.
Your film focuses on both graffiti tags—the basic writing of an artist’s name—and full on graffiti art including wall murals and stencils. During the Q&A you said that before you started filming you, like most people, didn’t like tags and that your were more drawn to graffiti art. Has that opinion changed?
Now I actually prefer a really good tag to a, quote-unquote, beautiful piece that people have spent days on. It depends, because I think that a tag, when it’s done really well, has immediacy and energy, and also artistry to it. And, it’s not saying that the wall murals don’t have artistry as well, but I think that sometimes on the legal walls it’s almost like they spend too much time and the energy is taken away from it. It’s almost too much like mural art and it isn’t really street art anymore, even though it’s on the street. There is a certain energy that is caused by the immediacy of doing something in the moment. In any art form, as you delve into it, you develop a certain taste and the ability to see things that maybe people who aren’t familiar with the art form can’t see. And that’s why I think there’s an appreciation, and sure there are ugly tags, but to appreciate a really nice tag, you have to have a little bit of experience with that before you can see it.
And you came to that conclusion while making the film?
In the beginning of the film we weren’t even going to deal with tags. But, we realised that that was our ignorance or naivety and that they really can’t be separated.
The film covers several cities around the world starting in New York. There seemed to be a lot more tags in New York and LA as opposed to the more vibrant artistic pieces in other cities like Amsterdam and Paris. Do you think there’s a reason for this?
[It’s] probably what we showed. I mean you can find pretty much all forms of graffiti in all cities. But, we looked for differences and we tried to find what was special to that city. To just find Wild Style over and over again, it’s kind of boring. To be perfectly honest, I’m a little bored with Wild Style and I appreciate people who are pushing the boundaries of form and taking it to a different level; they see what’s been done before and go “wow how am I going to do something different?” If anything, sometimes I think graffiti writers are a little lazy.
Can you define Wild Style?
Wild style is actually a crew that Tracy168 ran in the 70s, and it was for him, how he lived, as he says in [our] film. And, that name got applied to the New York style of graffiti because of the film called Wild Style, and because of that, everything in the New York style became Wild Style—basically big letters with arrows intertwined where you couldn’t really read it very well.
You have said that a lot of graffiti writers were apprehensive to be in the film because there are so many “bad graffiti films” and they didn’t want to be involved in that. What makes a graffiti film bad and why do you think there are so many of them?
I wouldn’t say they are bad; they just serve a specific purpose. People can watch endless amounts of graffiti just like pornography; you can watch endless amounts of sex with bad production value but there’s no context to the films. And I think people are reticent to be in movies because they’re not sure what you are going to do with what they say. They are trusting you with their work and what is about. A lot of time that has been betrayed by people. People have taken things out of context.
What is the mission of your movie?
I think the mission of our movie is several fold, one to show the richness of the movement—that it’s not any one thing, that it’s actually a multitude of things. And, if there is any one point, it’s to get people to look at public space differently than how they have thought of it. That, to me, is most successful when, after seeing the movie, people come up to me and say “wow I look at the landscape of the city totally differently after seeing your movie” – that is the greatest compliment.
There is a so-called “war on graffiti” here in Reykjavik. There is strict enforcement against tagging and mural writing alike. After attending the panel with the Central City Director who came out against graffiti, do you think Reykjavik can strike a balance between the people who want it and the people who don’t?
I think so. Very few cities wouldn’t even have a [Government official] come out and talk to anyone. Most cities are just against graffiti and “fuck you guys.” So, the fact that there was someone there trying to do something was a good first step. To be honest the issue with Reykjavik is it’s such a small town that if you keep the centre clean you’re basically keeping everything clean. In large cities you have areas that are artisan places where if you have places covered in graffiti it’s more tolerated. Here, it’s doesn’t seem like that exist—that I’ve seen.
I know you’ve only been here for three days but can you give your impressions of Reykjavik as far as the graffiti scene goes and what you think the future might hold?
I have no idea. It seems pretty varied. I always like it when people push the boundaries and explore different mediums. There is a recent issue of Overspray, an international graffiti magazine, and they have so many different kinds of graffiti that you can do like there’s knitting graffiti, people who knit on street posts, there’s people who do metal sculptures and illegally place them. There’s so many different forms of graffiti besides ink and spray paint especially when there’s a crackdown. Be creative, do something else—find a way to do work. And, the other thing that’s interesting is that there’s very little stickering here. I mean maybe those are expensive to make but I didn’t see any stickers here and they are easy to put up and hard to get off.