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'Style Wars': Documenting Graffiti Artists

In the early 1980s, New York kids reacted to the urban decay and poverty around them with a burst of creative self-expression that became known as hip hop: rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing and graffiti art.

Subway trains were the white canvasses graffiti writers used to make their mark on the world. In 1983, PBS aired Style Wars, a documentary chronicling the early days of hip hop, when young graffiti "taggers" used to spray their names on subway trains for fame, to the chagrin of authorities and their parents. NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks back on the film, which has just been re-released on DVD with updated material.

Style Wars celebrates the graffiti artists' modern-day hieroglyphics, and captures the days and nights when the young outlaws ruled the subway lines.

The film follows notorious graffiti writers such as Min One, Dez, Iz and Seen as they sneak through subway tunnels to train yards, avoiding the ominous electric third rails. Armed with cans of Krylon spray paint, they outrun transit police to create mural masterpieces with block letters and cartoon figures, all in the name of fame. Style Wars documents the thrill of seeing their so-called "wild style" graffiti tags on passing subway trains throughout the city.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.