Style Wars interview
Thursday July 9, 2009·
Max Olijnyk: How old were you when the film was made? What was going on in your world at that point in time?
Carlos Rodriguez: When Style Wars was being filmed in 1982 I was about 15 yrs old. My world back then was what seemed normal to me and my friends, stealing paint, going out to discos or jams, going into train yards late at night to create masterpieces. It was a wayward time, a time of deepening social crises and poverty, in many ways the South Bronx and many parts of NYC seemed third world so to escape that harsh reality we invented this culture called Hip Hop. The social aspects around music jams, Bboy battles and trains kept us all active and engaged in some sort of creativity regardless of conditions that arrested us.
MO: For people like myself, a middle-class kid growing up in Australia, films like Style Wars were like a window into a completely separate world that we had to find out more about. But for you, I imagine it was more a part of daily life. What was it about graffiti that captured your attention when you started? Was it something everyone was doing, or was it something you stumbled across?
CR: As a kid I didn't know any better, I imagined it all belonged, the graffiti, the burnt out buildings the crime and so on, but when I saw the graffiti on the trains my reaction was who? What? Where? Why? When? I had so many questions the minute I became aware that this was more than scrawling a name on the wall, now trains had color, cartoons and cool names like Super Strutt and Stay High 149. The first influential train I saw was a LEE Quinones whole train called Soul Train, it had dancing characters that were taller than me, it pulled up on me as I waited for the train on 149st Grand Concourse which was also the infamous Writers Corner or Writers Bench train station where writers would meet to look at the passing trains and exchange black books for signatures and drawings. From that point on I knew I wanted to do it so I secretively began my writing career in my public school walls and bathroom and the rest is history.
MO: How involved were the filmmakers with you guys? Were you ever suspicious of them? There seems to be a level of respect and trust there that would be difficult to achieve.
CR: At that point we had already established a friendship with Henry and a respect for his commitment to his photography of our works, Tony was vouched for by Henry and he seemed very passionate about the film which made it easier for us because there was no pretence, he wanted to capture us in our element and in our own words. We are a skeptical bunch but once you were vouched for by certain members of the writing community it was easier to navigate our world. It was unprecedented to have these outsiders so embedded mind you, they were older white men in an urban community who could have easily been under cover cops but one can see by the risks they took in making the film that they were clearly aligned with our cause.
MO: Did you have any idea at the time how influential the film would go on to be? Was there a feeling of being involved in something great?
CR: I believe no one knew what was to come, after the first screening I felt like I was given a small window into my own world and began to think of it objectively, it gave me a sense of value and purpose, something that was not part of my personal support system. As a collective many writers I believe were deeply moved by it, others felt betrayed others felt left out, but the point of it was that it was a time capsule, an opportunity that came along at the right time through the mayhem that was the graffiti subway art movement and the keen interests of a filmmaker and photographer. It's not till years after the fact that we realize our small part in changing the course of art and social history, it is evident in so many aspects of popular culture and in our personal lives. Before Tony passed I was in Berlin and I had painted a wall near a music venue earlier in the day, late in the evening I went out for a walk and there was a group of some dozen kids going home and they were looking at the wall and one kid turns to the other and they both role play my part in the movie, they had no idea I was behind them, I didn't interrupt as they did it word for word. This is legacy in a manner I didn't realize I had, I called Tony immediately to share it with him to express my gratitude and the legacy of his contribution.
MO: The emphasis on painting trains is easily understood, seeing as they are so visible and risky to hit. How long did it take you from when you started to your first train? How long did you paint trains for?
CR: I started writing on trains by motion tagging meaning as they ran from station to station I would quickly get my name on as many surfaces as possible, this was 1976, my first train was painted on my brother Kel First's shoulders, I was too small to reach. I quit writing on trains officially in 1986.
MO: Apart from painting trains, which I understand still goes on but to a lesser extent, how do artists go 'all-city' now? Is there an equivalent? Is it in the gallery world?
CR: There is a greater equivalent to getting up or going all city, at first it was all the intercontinental travelling that was done in the early 80s by 1989 my brother and I jumped on the technology that was emerging and saw the bulletin boards and this new thing called the internet as the most powerful and expansive way top get up. We were the first to publish a Hip Hop website that featured graffiti, politics, streetwear etc. I knew that there would be no better tool in spreading the culture further and wider so we taught other writers how to use technology to their advancement as artists and professionals. The web is by far the best platform for this new generation. I also see high profile commercial projects as the equivalent, take the Annual BET Award which is a high profile award the top performers and actor, and athletes win this award, people such as Beyonce, Jay Z, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Prince and others who have won this award I designed, it is viewed on television by millions of people every year, to me this is a way of getting up because my peers identify with my work and know it's a part of me, just if they saw a tag rolling by on a train lets say. Galleries I say to a lesser extent as it was told to me by a fellow artists - galleries are nothing but lay-up, get in get out.
MO: Were you aware of other graf scenes around the world at the time of Style Wars? It's hard to imagine how you would get connected with these people before the internet. Do you think that element of dislocation from the rest of the world maybe was a part of what made the scene in New York so strong?
CR: We had no idea until the reports started flowing back from the first wave of artists and crews that went abroad, it spread quickly and swiftly ultimately pandemic. I believe though what we experienced here was unique to our city I believe many cities and cultures share in similar experiences and creative rebellions that define their time. All the conditions were ripe for us, the poverty nourished the soil beneath us and allowed this seed called Hip Hop to grow.
MO: With the massive influence Style Wars (along with other films, music and art) had, it effectively changed the landscape and opened up graffiti culture to a wider audience. How have you seen the graffiti, hip-hop and art scene change since then, and has it been for the better?
CR: I believe the changes have been for the better. The film captured the tail end of an era and gave birth to many generations of artists who otherwise wouldn't be practicing art. The subway movement changed not just the social fabric of our city but that of the most cities of the world, it brought kids together and ultimately changed the course of many lives. One could pick and choose what they like or don't like currently in the scene, but know this it is a scene that grows exponentially every year and new and more progressive ideas are coming to the table, there is a place setting for traditional style writers, bombers, taggers, stencil artists, wheat pasting etc. It has also empowered political movement and community outreach, there are many aspects of this movement that are unprecedented in the annals of modern art.
MO: Do you still feel nostalgia for that time? I imagine it must have been an amazing thing to be a part of, but also there are so many other things you have been involved in since that have you are just as, if not more proud of.
CR: There is definitely nostalgia because it is so recent and still so relevant to our lives, we are still trading books, outlines and supporting one another's shows, we celebrate our achievements and our passing, recently we lost Mike IZ The Wiz Martin and a bunch of writers came together to remember him, speak of him and trade signatures as we always have. Even Henry and Marty Cooper showed up, to give you an idea how much a part of this culture they are. I appreciate nostalgia but there are times where I don't care to be seen as the kid in the movie rather the progressive artist/sculptor I became after the fact, my breakthrough in translating graffiti into sculpture in 1985 is a huge milestone for me and the resulting work is what I care to be known for.
MO: Your life and career as a fine artist has remained inextricably connected and informed by the culture presented in the film. Do you ever wonder what direction your life would have gone in if it wasn't for graffiti?
CR: If it weren't for graffiti I would have just blended in.
MO: How involved were you with the Style Wars revisited project in 2003? I understand you are behind the SW website also.
CR: With the revisited project I was an Associate producer and helped develop some of the content for the dvd with Peter Girardi. I had been the sole producer of the site for Henry and Tony since the early web days, I have been the only developer for the site over the years and then when the time came we decided it would be best to do the double DVD with out takes and the catalogue of whole trains, this was a great effort and was a milestone for the film because it had introduced new never before seen content in film and images as well as a revisiting of the artists in the film. I also had a part in having it featured at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was a terrific event. As for the website I produced the website with the intent of winning a Webby Award, I knew I wanted it to have a narrative and dynamic functionality but more importantly I wanted to garner an award for both the filmmakers and for the developers/programmers I hired for it. Sure enough I delivered. The next iteration of the site in development will be more inclusive of the current scene and relevant artists who were before and after the fact and influential in their parts of the world. Log in.
MO: Do you have contact with many of the artists featured in the film?
CR: Yes I am in contact with several of the guys in the film if not on a regular basis on a yearly or monthly one at best. We are the last of the mohicans and still congregate to support one another when possible.
MO: Like any documentary, viewers for this special series of screenings will range from people who know and love the film, to people who have never heard of it before. How would you preface this film, for a 2009 Melbourne audience?
CR: This film may have encouraged the ruin (of) a city, trains, lives and may have an uncalculatable cost on clean ups around the globe, but more so and most importantly it gave kids hope, it gave them art and may have saved them or inspired him or her to make something of themselves and SO the world in all of its imbalance may in fact be a bit better off because of it.