Graffiti emerged in the 1970s in New York City and quickly made the transition from vandalism to street art, perhaps by sheer volume alone. It became semi-legitimized as an art form in the 1980s, as graffiti styles began showing up in art galleries in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and others. However, it was swiftly reigned in and sent back underground by Rudi Giuliani and his NYPD Vandal Squad in the 1990s. Despite its storied history, graffiti has not been given the film treatment too often over the years, the only ones coming to mind being “Turk 182!” and the biographical film about Basquiat.
The latest entry in this sub-genre is NYU film student Adam Bhala Lough’s debut feature “Bomb the System”, which tackles the subject with an edgy, hip perspective. Brimming with the raw street energy that only New York City can provide, “Bomb the System” sets off with the urgency of a classic Run DMC video shot through the camera lens of Hype Williams. The opening sequences of nighttime Brooklyn took me back to when I was growing up there in the early ’80s. The dark, dank alleys, neon lights, rusty fire escapes and gaudy graffiti all brought back fond memories of my youth.
A guerilla-style film about the only illegal art form, “Bomb The System” follows the misadventures of two graffiti artists known as Blest (Mark Webber) and Buk 50 (Gano Grills) as they go bombing (prowling) the nighttime streets of Brooklyn tagging (spray painting) every edifice they can find. Taking a page from Martin Scorsese’s book, the film’s opening segment takes us through the typical day and night of these two street artists at a breakneck pace, the narrative strung along by streetwise narration from Blest.
Along the way we learn interesting things about the graffiti subculture, like how real graffiti artists steal their spray paint because buying paint is seen as a sign of weakness and lack of commitment to the anti-establishment roots of the art, and how the true graffiti artist is motivated solely by the glory of having his work seen. It’s not all fun and games, however, as Blest and Buk 50 run afoul of everyone, from rival graffiti artists to a couple of crooked cops from the Vandal Squad on their nightly bombing runs.
Based on his own film school thesis, Lough uses the backdrop of the graffiti underworld to spin a surprisingly conventional tale of friendship, anti-establishment struggle, and self-discovery. In Blest and Buk 50, Lough presents two motivated kids moving in opposite directions from a common start. Blest struggles with his love for the art and the lifestyle, fueled by the untimely death of his older brother, while growing increasingly aware that the life holds no tangible future for him. On the other hand, Buk 50 is fully absorbed in the graffiti culture. Graffiti is his life and the only future he needs is the knowledge that he’ll be tagging walls every night. Things get more complicated when Blest meets a street artist named Alex (Jaclyn DeSantis, “Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power”), who tries to get him interested in directing his art to something with more substance, such as her anti-Corporate slogans.
Lough delivers the drama in an impressive assault of vibrant colors, jump cuts, thumping beats and post-synched dialogue. And yet, despite the strength of its sonic and visual flamboyance, “Bomb the System” can’t escape Lough’s own clich’d script. What starts out as a pseudo-documentary of New York City ‘s most ubiquitous form of native art gradually grinds down to a conflicted thesis on the nobility of bombing versus giving in to The Man.
As a result, all the usual suspects are included. We get Blest’s left-wing girlfriend, who pleads with him to turn his art political, and Blest’s mother, who wants him to go to college and make something of himself. Then there’s Buk 50 arguing for keeping it real and not selling out. The film hits its greatest stumbling block when the characters try to rationalize their need to express themselves via their tagging. It’s a passionate argument, but it sounds like a lot of self-absorbed rhetoric about dissent for the sake of dissent. The film even ends on a cleverly executed, but nevertheless empty narrative twist that suggests martyrdom is the ultimate goal for the dedicated street artist.
The Hallmark Hall of Fame narrative aside, “Bomb the System” is a fairly entertaining film. It’s got visual flair and energy to spare, plus an interesting topic to boot. Sadly, perhaps chiefly due to its fictionalized setup, we don’t learn very much about graffiti from the film aside from some choice slang and some impressive tags. As a result, “Bomb the System” fails to fully educate on its own topic, and what should have been an avant-garde experience instead seems oddly conventional.
Adam Bhala Lough (director) / Adam Bhala Lough (screenplay)
CAST: Mark Webber …. Anthony ‘Blest’ Campo
Gano Grills …. Justin ‘Buk 50’ Broady
Jade Yorker …. Kevin ‘Lune’ Broady
Jaclyn DeSantis …. Alexandra
Joey Dedio …. Hazer
Stephen Buchanan …. Noble