A graffiti artist who attended the screening doodles while waiting for the documentary to begin. Credit: Epicenter NYC

Graffiti is embedded in New York City’s culture. These vibrant reminders of self-expression first began appearing on the streets of NYC in the 1960s. But in 2024, its importance has never felt more alive and relevant.

Chalfant and Femi discuss the experiences of graffiti artists in the 80s and today Credit: Epicenter NYC

Last week, Epicenter NYC highlighted this through the work of Henry Chalfant, the producer behind the 1983 film Style Wars. The documentary digs into the 1980s Hip Hop scene, graffiti culture, and the efforts of the city to crack down on the art form. The cult classic highlights young, defiant, and creative New Yorkers who risked criminal prosecution in exchange for sharing their art with the world. 

An intimate crowd watches ‘Style Wars.’ Credit: Epicenter NYC

Epicenter NYC held two screenings of Style Wars in collaboration with the Bronx Music Heritage Center last week. The event was more than a nostalgic trip – it reaffirmed the Bronx’s pivotal role in creating Hip Hop, of which graffiti is a core element. 

The first screening was held at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School. Chalfant and Epicenter NYC’s co-founder S. Mitra Kalita spoke with students and bridged past and present while emphasizing the critical role of preserving these cultural narratives. Students got a firsthand look at what life was like for graffiti artists about the same age as them, hungry to have their art recognized in the same way as the art in Downtown galleries. 

Chalfant and Kalita talk to students at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School. Credit: Epicenter NYC

“Who ends up being valued as an artist is often subjective. Yet when art is created by Black people, it seems like it doesn’t get revered in the same way,” said one student at the school. This reminder posits that art from marginalized communities holds profound societal value by challenging norms and pushing boundaries.

Students show Henry their mural outside in the school’s courtyard.

The second event was held at the Bronx Music Heritage Center. It felt something like a long overdue family gathering, with graffiti artists and enthusiasts expressing their admiration for Chalfant. One graffiti artist shared a story about how he skipped school back in the 80s to attend one of Chalfant’s shoots. 

The audience was filled with admiration and respect for Chalfant’s work. Credit: Epicenter NYC

“There have been countless screenings of this film over the years, but nothing compares to the heart of it all, here in the Bronx,” Chalfant said. “It all started right here.” Many had an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and excitement. 

“This will be my fourth or fifth time seeing the film,” a Bronx resident proudly shared. “I once knew many of these kids.” 

Classic ‘80s tunes soundtracked the vintage New York City landscapes. People of all ages bopped their heads and mouthed the words to songs. “I never usually leave Manhattan, but this broke me out of my routine,” said one attendee. “You don’t usually see events like this about the culture.” 

The energy was electric, with various lines of dialogue popping up from the crowd. There were also collective boos or groans when then-Mayor Edward Koch and then-MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch appeared on screen expressing their goal to stifle the teens’ creativity. 

“The MTA wasn’t exactly pleased with how we depicted them,” Chalfant remarked. “But they knew it could have been much worse.” 

To many attendees in the room, the City of New York and its law enforcement aimed to erase their work, and thus their identities. 

“It’s the only way they could see their name in bright lights, just like the billboards around the city,” said Chalfant. 

Chalfant talks to a group of graffiti artists.

The night wasn’t complete without Lloyd’s Carrot Cake. The popular Bronx bakery donated cupcakes for the event—a sweet touch from a New York City staple that, like graffiti, has its own story of perseverance and community. It’s a meaningful reminder of how local businesses and culture support each other, creating a tapestry of shared history and collective memory.

Cupcakes from Lloyd’s Carrot Cake. Credit: Epicenter NYC

The comfortable, close-knit community viewing was a reminder of all the things that make the Bronx special. It was a celebration of art, culture, and self-expression that highlighted the importance of fostering creativity and giving young people a platform for expression.

As we navigate a fraught world where art remains as one of the few bridges between cultures and societies, events like these reinforce the power of community.

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