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Q&A with Filmmakers Jon Reiss & Tracy Wares {printed in Art Bureau 14}

Editor's Note: On the heels of its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival, Tracy Wares (producer and director of photography of the film Bomb It) agreed to answer some questions about graffiti, the documentary, and her travels while filming. A shoutout to N.O.M.A.D. who helped with this email / instant messaging sit-down & Restitution Press for the graphics.


Are you and John Reiss the main team behind the filming of Bomb It?
Jon Reiss directed and produced the film, while I (Tracy Wares) acted as producer and director of photography. We traveled to five continents over the course of two years documenting top graffiti writers and street artists.

Were shots and locations filmed on the fly or staked out and rehearsed?
While we had a general idea of who, what, and where we wanted to film, our production had to be flexible to the realities of producing illegal art. A lot of the painting spots were staked out by the graffiti writers ahead of time, but they could change the location if they thought it was too risky. Once in Berlin we waited on a rooftop for three hours with a group of writers, while the others played look-out on the streets below. Coincidentally, undercover cops made a big bust on the same block and it became a sticky situation to get out of there without being noticed by the authorities.

Did any legal complications or any other unforeseen events occur during filming?
When we were filming in Sheffield, England it just so happened that the London bombings had occurred only two weeks before. We went with some artists inside an abandoned squat to paint. After about 30 minutes of painting, we heard the classic sirens and “Come out with your hands up!” Needless to say we were a bit freaked out and it took us a while to decide what to do. After another 30 minutes of deliberation and a standoff of sorts, we came out with the excuse that we were filming an indy music video. Ultimately the police were relieved to find out we weren’t terrorists. After cross-checking our names with Interpol they let us go.

What are your thoughts on the politics surrounding graffiti laws, task forces, etc?
Our shared visual landscape and public spaces are filled with advertisements in today’s world. Often we no longer notice this proliferation because it is something so commonplace. Graffiti writers and street artists draw attention to the use of this space by creating visual interferences. It seems to me that an individual who wants to utilize their right of freedom of expression should be permitted to use this shared space that belongs to all of us.

Of course, people’s homes, personal property and places of worship are a different situation.

The “Quality of Life” laws, which started in New York City, have begun to proliferate around the world. Even in places like Barcelona, where street art has been traditionally supported and allowed to flourish, are becoming increasingly vigilant and eager to prosecute people for painting in public. The general trend around the world, as more countries become police states, is to inflict greater punishment on graffiti writers. Now in New York City writing graffiti can be considered a felony and writers are facing years in prison for non-violent crimes.

The harsh laws and police state tactics employed against graffiti writers is another indication of how all citizens are losing their rights to express discontent with society at large.

What is your opinion on the “broken window” theory in relation to graffiti?
While the “broken window” theory was not originally written with the intent to provide a framework for dealing with graffiti specifically, many politicians use it as evidence in support of their own policies. The “broken window” theory states that when a neighborhood begins to decline visually, with broken windows and graffiti, criminals feel that no one cares about the area and it is an easy target for them, more crime in the area occurs, and the neighborhood continues to decline in a downward spiral. I think that this is sort of a chicken and the egg problem. Poverty, racism, and the lack of education causes crime. But these are not easy issues for the law to tackle. It’s much easier to blame the graffiti writer in a hoodie.

During one of our interviews in response to the question, “Does graffiti cause crime?” a NYC writer name Dro responded, “Does graffiti cause white collar crime?” I think he made a very good point.

Did you already have a list of artists you wanted to highlight prior to filming?
We definitely did our research before we began filming and there were artists at the top of our list, but the film is also about the places and cultures that these writers and artists are from. Therefore, we chose people because they embodied the trends and characteristics we were trying to illustrate.

Pez is an amazing artist from Barcelona who is known for the fish character that he paints. We specifically hunted him down because we wanted to show how the artists in Barcelona have moved from writing their names to using icons instead of letters in their artwork. We were able to reach so many writers around the globe, who by necessity are guarded about their identities, through the generosity and trust of other writers we had already interviewed.

Did you feel any elitism among artists in the graffiti culture?
Of course elitism exists among writers in the graffiti world and the elitism of the art world trickles down to street artists. Many old-school graffiti writers are purists and have strict rules about what can be considered graffiti.

More importantly though, I feel there is a strong sense of community among them. Thanks to the Internet, artists from around the world can connect with each other and get inspired by each other's art from different places. A writer from Barcelona can show up in Berlin and meet a writer there who will let them crash at their place and take them out to some of the best painting spots in town. So there is this deep camaraderie between artists who have shared experiences doing their work in covert ways while hiding from the authorities.

What do you think is the main force keeping the graffiti movement going?
As KRS One says in our film, “Graffiti began with the birth of human consciousness.” Alexander the Great and Napoleon both left their names on monuments in the lands they conquered. Scrawling one’s name on a wall is an innate human trait. Everyone wants to have some confirmation that they exist and some piece of immortality. But as long as there is discontent with modern life and injustices to speak out against—graffiti will flourish.

How long did it take to film and edit everything?
It took more than 2.5 years to film and edit Bomb It! Since we wanted to stress the global aspect of this art movement we interviewed artists in their native languages. The film is in English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and Japanese. It took us countless hours to translate and transcribe all of it.

Any more film festivals on the horizon?
We are elated about our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. New York City is the birthplace for the modern graffiti movement so it couldn’t be more fitting for us to show Bomb It! there first. We also want people from around the world, especially those countries which we filmed in, have the opportunity to see it. So watch out for us at future film festivals and visit our website to sign up for the mailing list for details about feature screenings and the upcoming DVD.

The Bomb It movie site states you’re looking for street artists to collaborate with—sequel?
We want to continue with separate DVDs on each of the continents and will probably do more filming for these in the future. We are also designing our website so that people can post images of their work and connect with each other through forums. Our MySpace page has become an amazing place filled with incredible art thanks to people posting comments with images of their original art. We want to see more of this and encourage everyone to share their work with a global audience.

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