For a subject which can be considered a niche market Graffiti is very well represented when it comes to cult classic documentary films, probably due to its close historic ties with the early development of hip-hop culture. There are numerous great documentaries about the history of tagging and graffiti, as well as a steady flow of films which look at the modern state of the movement in major cities all around the globe. This article attempts to identify 10 of the very best graffiti documentaries for those looking to learn about the scene and its history, all of which can be watched in full and for free on this website.
A classic documentary on early street art and hip hop culture in New York. This film was broadcast on PBS and screened at numerous film festivals in 1983 but almost lost to history before later gaining a cult following among modern street art and hip hop fans. Young street artists give their perspectives on graffiti, whilst also contributing are people who have a negative stance such as then New York mayor Ed Koch and police officers. Artists to feature include Kase 2, Skeme, Cap, Dondi, Sheen, and Sky 147. Watch here.
A vintage documentary by the esteemed novelist Norman Mailer about the very early years of the graffiti scene in New York, it was preceded by a book by Mailer of the same name. It is possibly the very first documentary to be broadcast about graffiti culture (Style Wars in 1983 is considered an early documentary!). The film is approached with a neutral perspective, giving air time to both the artists themselves who are of course proponents of graffiti and members of the community who hated graffiti and seeing their communities vandalised. Watch here.
A groundbreaking documentary which was probably the first to give a truly global perspective on graffiti culture, rather than focusing on the movement in a specific geographical area or in a purely historical context. The filming takes place over five continents and is effectively a collaborative effort involving artists from around the world. Cities featuring in the film include Amsterdam, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, and more. The film uses original footage including archive footage of some of the scenes forefathers, including Cornbread who started spraying in Philadelphia in the 1960’s. Watch here.
An excellent feature length documentary from the mid-Noughties which looks at two decades of San Francisco graffiti history, its various controversies, and some of the most prominent artists in the local scene from its birth in the mid-eighties up to the final cut of the film in 2004. The film was edited down from 100 hours of new footage including interviews conducted over a four year period with numerous street artists, as well as extensive historical archive footage. Watch here.
Another great feature length documentary from 2005, six prolific street artists attempt to explain why they risk everything – their careers, freedom, and families – to spray paint on the walls of their hometowns and beyond. Artists from all over the United States, from New York to San Francisco, provide unprecedented access into their day-to-day lives to give you an insight into the way that their minds work. Among the artists to feature are Gastman and Pray, both of whom show their faces despite the associated risks. Watch here.
A documentary by elusive British street artist Banksy about Thierry Guetta, a little known LA based graffiti artist and used clothing shop owner (street name Mr. Brainwash). The film is largely made up of clips apparently filmed by Guetta himself. At the time of release there was a lot of debate about whether Guetta was a real person or whether Banksy was playing a prank on the world (it has pretty much since been established that he is real). The documentary was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award. Watch here.
A Channel 4 (UK) documentary which explores the competitive nature of the graffiti world, focusing primarily on the war which was fought between globally famous graffiti artist Banksy and the London underground legend King Robbo and his supporters. The war began when Banksy destroyed a famous original Robbo piece, the last known original remaining Robbo piece in existence (he had long retired), King Robbo came out of retirement to restore the piece and pursued a tit-for-tat war with Banksy – many valuable Banksy pieces were destroyed. Watch here.
Now for something a little bit different, there are many documentaries which tell the story of the history of graffiti, but most will go back to the 1960’s or 1970’s. In this 2015 BBC documentary the historian Dr Richard Clay goes back 30000 years to the real beginnings of history, when primitive man would leave their mark on cave walls. He then works his way up through Roman graffiti, World War 2 graffiti, until he eventually covers the birth of modern street art in the 60’s and 70’s. Watch here.
A self-financed independent documentary by Philly journalist Robert Moran, it looks back at the history of graffiti in Philadelphia – the place where many argue the movement was born in the 1960’s. The documentary features several old school local graffiti legends including Kool Klepto Kid and Cool Earl, who had become celebrities in the 60’s and 70’s off of the back of their art, as well as from a former mayor who launched a war against the scene that resulted in the creation of the Mural Arts Program in the city. Watch here.
A documentary which looks at the graffiti art movement in a truly global context, filming across 9 great cities in 7 different countries, the film goes deep inside a usually shy movement to show the day to day lives of numerous celebrated street artists. It attempts to gain an understanding of the way that the minds of a graffiti artist work in a world which still largely doesn’t accept or understand the movement. Watch here.
Also Worth A Watch:
- Sheffield Graffiti Kingdom
- Behind The Writing on the Walls
- Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
- Kings and Toys