Sneak peek: Style Wars fund-raiser

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Photograph: Henry Chalfant

RECOMMENDED: Street art and graffiti guide

In the early 1980s, you were more likely to see My Dinner with Andre on PBS than a documentary about New York City’s then-burgeoning graffiti scene. But in 1984, the film Style Wars—the brainchild of Pittsburgh transplant Henry Chalfant and New York native Tony Silver (who died in 2008)—reached a national audience via the network, offering a glimpse into NYC street culture. Its subsequent grassroots following in the street-art world led to even more recognition, as the doc went on to win the grand jury prize in its category at that year’s American Film Festival (now better known as Sundance). And unlike cultural-tourist pap like the Breakin’ films, Style Wars earned street cred because of Silver and Chalfant’s (who directed and produced the film, respectively) approach as artists: They painted a portrait of middle- and low-income New York City kids who sought empowerment through their renegade murals. “Graffiti didn’t start out being consciously political,” remembers Chalfant. “But with time, people saw it as a great tool for expression of all kinds, including political subversion. It still is, because unsanctioned graffiti is free and no one can control your message.”

Somehow, the film’s original negatives remain unrestored and are deteriorating, meaning that future generations could lose an essential tool for insight into the early days of NYC street art. But there is a way to help: On Thursday 9, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosts a fund-raising event for the film (BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave between Ashland Pl and St. Felix St, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 718-636-4100, bam.org; 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm; $7.50--$12). Chalfant, along with some of the spray-can prodigies documented in the film, will be on hand for a Q&A following the 6:50pm screening. Canvases of the artists’ work will be on display and Style Wars alum Dezzy Dez (who spins as DJ Kay Slay) will man the decks at a special reception (8:30pm). Half of the box office proceeds will go toward the restoration via the nonprofit Public Art Films. —Kenny Herzog

Looking back on Style Wars
Producers of and participants in the film share their memories.

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