Graffiti in the Movies

Clarisse Loughrey,

Last week saw the release of Gimme the Loot, the SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner by Adam Leon, which sees two graffiti artists seek revenge after their replica of the NY Mets home-run apple is buffed by a rival gang. Now, to a bunch of graffiti artists revenge isn't a passive aggressive Facebook status or a mayonnaise-filled doughnut; it's pulling off one of the most impressive feats of street art: tagging the real-life NY Met's apple. So to celebrate great graffiti in great movies, we've compiled a list of some of our own personal favourites.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

A documentary about street art turned a documentary about a man making a documentary about street art who in turn becomes a famous street artist? Phew, that was a mouthful. Exit Through the Gift Shop sees Banksy turn the lens on Thierry Guetta, documenting his journey from amateur filmmaker to renowned street artist Mr. Brainwash. Unfortunately, Guetta's own attempt at a graffiti documentary was, in Banksy's own words, "unwatchable". Awkward. The good news, though, is that Guetta had filmed thousands of hours of footage which Banksy's team of editors were able to sift through, featuring great works of street art from Invaders' mosaic space invaders that were dotted around Paris, Shepard Fairey's 'Obey Giant' sticker campaign, and Bansky's legendary 'Barely Legal' show.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Near the end of Coppola's masterpiece, the words 'OUR MOTTO: APOCALYPSE NOW' are seen graffitied on a wall surrounded by bodies. Ah, so this must be one of those deep, significant moments which bring together all of the movies' themes and motifs? Not fact it only appears onscreen so the name 'Apocalypse Now' could be copyrighted. There's a weird rule that the title of the movie must appear onscreen to earn copyright, so the graffiti was the director's way of getting around the fact Apocalypse had no opening titles. He's a clever one, that Coppola.

Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)

Jules et Jim covers one of the greatest fears of graffiti artists everywhere: running out of paint. It's especially a problem if you're a young Parisian anarchist with a message to spread and you're missing a vital letter: "They'll say anarchists can't spell."

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

Eric Parker is having a bad day. He's gotten pied in the face by an anarchist, his pristine white limousine covered in graffiti, rats waved in his face, his doctor told him he has an asymmetrical prostate (ouch), he's lost most of his fortune, AND someone's trying to kill him. And all the guy wanted was a haircut. Jesus.

Bomb It (Jon Reiss, 2007)

While not as attention-grabbing as Banksy's unique take on the street art world, Bomb It gets down and gritty with the world of graffiti, filming on 5 continents and documenting the ongoing struggle to liberate public spaces. It's also a neat little history lesson: spanning from the 'father of modern graffiti', Cornbread, who started tagging his name all the way back in 1967, to TAKI 183's New York Times feature spawning an explosion in tagging across the city as young kids from around the boroughs fought to get attention.

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)

Graffiti doesn't just form part of the landscape of La Haine, it's an internal commentary on Mathieu Kassovitz's explorations of the alienated youth of Parisian banlieues. Hubert at one point stands in front of a wall reading "The future, it's ours" (although in French, obviously). It's a supposedly hopeful, yet ultimately ironic reflection of Hubert's own position: dreaming of a life outside of the banlieues that is essentially unattainable for young men in his position.

West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, 1961)

The prologue of this movie sees the streets and buildings of Manhattan littered with tags by rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks. It all culiminates when one particular young Jet is caught adding 'stink' to a Sharks tag, leading Bernardo and his crew to chase him down and beat the crap out of him. Although it's less beating up, more fancy dancing.

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

Since almost the entirety of this film, dealing with gang negotiations gone sour, was shot on location in New York City, The Warriors unwittingly captured onto film the work of several '70s graffiti artists: including Iz the Wiz, Spear, Kado, and Nic 707.

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010)

While dealing with the death of his father, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds himself spraying "historical consciousness" graffiti on the side of L.A. buildings. While on the one hand it's exactly the kind of move a hipster artiste like Oliver would undertake, it also ties into a lot of what the movie's about: our relationship with the past as mediated by objects and experiences. Whether we like it or not, the fact Britney Spears was the most Googled name in 2003 still says something about our recent history; in a similar way Oliver remembers the differences between his parent's marriage in 1955 and the present time through who was president and what telephones looked like.

Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)

Graffiti pops up again in another Coppola classic, Rumble Fish. The streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma declare to all that 'The Motorcycle Boy Reigns', which is ironic considering this is exactly the opposite of what the renowned ganger leader (played by Mickey Rourke) wants as he searches for some peace in his life.

Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, 1981)

Downtown 81 stars legendary graffiti artist and painter Jean-Michael Basquiat as he encounters all kinds of New York beatniks, including graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, while trying to sell his art work after being kicked out of his apartment. It's supposedly heavily based on Basquiat's own experiences as an artist: he was actually homeless at the time and slept in the production office for most of the shoot.

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)

While perhaps not Michel Gondry's finest, Be Kind Rewind still opens on some sweet graffiti, as Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) paint an advertisement for the titular video store, along with a portrait of world-famous jazz pianist Fats Waller, who supposedly was a previous tenant of the store's building.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee is never one to shy away from controversy, which is probably why he included graffiti stating "Tawana told the truth" in Do the Right Thing. It references the infamous 1987 court case in which Tawana Brawley claimed she was abducted and sexually abused for four days by a group of white men. However, the court found evidence that contradicted her claims and she was successfully sued by the attackers for defamation. From Do the Right Thing however, it's clear where Lee stood on this historic case.

Did we miss out your favourite example of graffiti in the movies? Tell us off in the comments!

Follow Clarisse on Twitter: @clarisselou

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