The Best Graffiti in Cinema


For a month last summer, New Yorkers were absolutely consumed with all things Banksy. The acclaimed British street artist had come to NYC for a citywide “residency,” and his works popped up all over the city. HBO’s new user-generated documentary, Banksy Does New York (airing tonight at 9pm), recounts those halcyon days of stencils, street art, and secret identities. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to graffiti on film. We’ve rounded up seven more movies to check out, that will ensure you get your street-art fix.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Documentary or mockumentary? Banksy insists it’s the former, but we’re inclined to think it’s a bit of both. This 2010 film follows Thierry Guerra, a French immigrant living in LA, who is obsessed with capturing street art on film. His fieldwork exposes him to a pretty impressive array of artists, from Invader (who turns out to be his cousin!?) to Swoon and Banksy himself. The most recent movie on our list, Exit Through the Gift Shop offers a solid glimpse of the current heavy hitters of international street art, and how their landscapes are changing as street art goes into the gallery.

Basquiat (1996)

Yes, this is a fictional account. But there’s no way we could leave Basquiat off this list, if for no other reason than David Bowie as Andy Warhol. Artist Julian Schnabel directed this biopic, which follows Basquiat’s street-art beginnings as SAMO, through his meeting with Warhol, rocket to stardom, and untimely demise. Jeffrey Wright, starring as the precocious artists, is a powerhouse.

Wild Style (1983)

Another fictional entry on our roundup, Wild Style is seminal for its portrayal of the New York graffiti and hip-hop scenes in the early ’80s. The film follows street artist Zoro, and is notable for incredible cameos from folks like Grandmaster Flash, Fab Five Freddy, the Rock Steady Crew, and more. The movie has a huge cult following, with some fairly influential fans; you can find samples from it on albums by Nas, Dilla, the Beastie Boys, and A Tribe Called Quest. Wild Style perfectly captures just how intertwined early graffiti and early hip-hop scenes were.

Style Wars (1983)

The documentary response to Wild Style‘s call, Style Wars first aired on PBS before going on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The filmmakers (including graffiti photographer Henry Chalfant) not only talk to the young artists on the scene, but also speak with New York City mayor (at the time) Ed Koch — who was cracking down on “defacement of public property” — cops, and art critics.

Bomb It (2007)

Bomb It takes a much more global look at street art, following the intersection (and friction) of graffiti, public space, and public officials in Cape Town, London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York City, and São Paulo. An excellent survey, the film is pieced together from a lot of original footage, supplied by the artists themselves.

Krush Groove (1985)

Krush Groove is a thinly veiled look at the founding of Def Jam records. But that intertwining of graffiti and hip-hop mentioned early is again apparent in this entertaining flick. Watch it less for an education, and more for an immersion into the sights and sounds of the era. Bonus: An obviously incredible soundtrack, boasting tracks from the hip-hop stars of the film (who also played themselves): Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Sheila E., the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, and more.

RASH (2005)

Another documentary to take you out of NYC, RASH examines the recent explosion of street art in Melbourne, Australia. If you weren’t aware of that city’s claim to street-art fame, spend some time on Google image search, and then watch this movie. The street-art community there (comprised of both residents and visiting artists) is vibrant and very tight-knit.

Banksy Does New York (2014)

Catch this one on HBO starting tonight at 9pm!