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Aired last year in Italy, Sky Art’s underground documentary hit Graffiti A New York brilliantly chronicles the history of graffiti in NYC focusing on several key figures in the scene. After viewing the documentary, we had the opportunity to pose some questions to its producer and director Francesco Mazza.

You grew up in Italy. What spurred your interest in NYC graffiti? And how were you first introduced to its culture?

In the early 90’s a number of original graffiti writers from the Bronx moved to Italy looking to recover — thanks to the good weather and the healthy food — from the “crazy 80’s” in New York. They, maybe, needed what we now think of as a “detox” after the tumult.  At the time, graffiti writing had already come to the European consciousness through the movie Style Wars and the book Subway Art, but because of the influence of these newly migrated Masters, Italy, unlike the rest of Europe, developed a graffiti style akin to that of New York City’s.  It was the kind of style created by Phase 2, who moved to Italy himself, back in the 70’s. The walls of my neighborhood, Milano Lambrate, in the early 90’s looked exactly like those in the Bronx during the 70’s and the 80’s.

To us kids playing soccer in the street, those wall paintings were a sort of a mystery, and kids love mysteries. So, out of curiosity, we started asking questions to the older guys, and we all got involved.   From that point on, graffiti became an essential part of our lives — in our neighborhoods and in our identities as individuals.


What made you decide to produce a film on the topic? 

Having lived in New York for three years already, I was looking for a way to show the city to an Italian audience from a fresh and original perspective. I asked myself, “What do I know best?” The answer was clear: graffiti. I figured that behind the history of the graffiti movement, there was the history of the city itself. Really, graffiti writing could flourish only because of the terrible financial situation of New York during the 70’s. I always found it fascinating that all the crime and pain and blood of the 70’s spawned, at least, the most vibrant art movement the world has ever seen.

How long did the process take — from its conception to its completion?

The film itself took about a year to be made, but there are some elements of the history that I’d still like to add. I’m hoping for the opportunity to re-shoot some parts and add additional ones for a US release.  I’m searching for funding right now.  As great as it was to bring this to the Italian market, it has become clear to me that the documentary was the kind of record of a movement that deserves to be a part of the American canon, as well.  It’s about NYC. It documents the scene decade by decade. It’s really important to find a way to bring this history “home.”  Hopefully, I’ll find the financial backers; and due to the nature of the film, I’d love to partner with a museum, if possible.


How did you decide which artists to include?

“Graffiti writer” is a label. When you look beyond the label, there is literally everything. Artists, addicts, entrepreneurs, fools, poets, murderers; you name it, I saw it. Right off the bat, you have to understand that you won’t be able to get close to everybody if you want to stay somewhat safe.  It’s also very hard to gauge the importance of the single artist. Is a graffiti artist important because he had or has a great style? Cool, but what if the said writer has done only a couple of hits and nobody in the community cared about him? And what if you focus on the quantity, but then the style of that writer — whose name was everywhere — literally sucked?

There was a balancing act.  I, of course, chose artists with historical importance, but I also reached out to the writers that I like and that inspired me when I was a kid. Fortunately, most of them were willing to help me with the project.  I also felt strongly about making sure women were represented in the film.  They were absolutely a part of the movement, but sometimes when history chronicles events, women don’t always get the due they deserve in the record.  It was important to me to not fall into that trap as a director.


How did the artists respond to you?

Some of them were skeptical at the beginning, and they were absolutely right. When mainstream media talks about graffiti writing, they tend to create confusion. If we consider the art world, I think that after the 19th century, nobody considered an artist as someone who can only “make something look pretty.” Nobody thinks that Pollock, so to say, was an amazing artist because he could simply “make a canvas look pretty”; there was a complexity that was beyond — or sometimes even consciously lacking — beauty.  For some reason, all around the world, when media, or institutions, or public opinion deal with graffiti writers, they consider the graffiti writers’ work just on their ability to “decorate” a wall in a happy, colorful way. To me, and I think to all graffiti writers, there is, indeed, decoration. Maybe beautiful, wonderful decoration, but graffiti writing is also something else. Graffiti writing points right to the contradiction of contemporary society where we all matter. We all pay taxes and have the right to vote —  but, at the same time, to what degree do we really matter to the machine?  I think it’s a question everyone asks. As a result, millions of individuals decide to express their identity, their presence in the world by writing on a wall, consciously facing the consequences of their deeds.

When I walk in my Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn and I see a portrait of a dragon on a shutter, I think, nice illustration, but nothing beyond that. When I see a rough tag on a wall, I don’t say, “Look at that! So pretty!” but I think about a guy or girl that, despite the risk of getting busted and sentenced to two years of prison, decided to face the challenge and put his freedom at jeopardy to have me see his name.  Now, what is more interesting, from a social/cultural point of view? The fellow who copies an illustration of a dragon and gets paid for that, or the one who takes the risk for free to screw up his life forever just to have one individual out of one hundred thousand reading his name?  I personally have no doubt about which is both more interesting and matters more.  So, the graffiti writers I contacted were really scared that I was another guy from the media industry with no grasp at all of the roots and the meaning of the movement. It took me a lot of time and efforts to gain their trust, but once they realized what I was talking about, they were really cooperative and with some of them I built great friendships.

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What were some of the challenges you faced in producing the film?

I served as writer, director, and executive producer. The network, Sky Art,  gave me a budget, and I was free to manage it however I liked.  But that was hard, because as a director, I always wanted more  — more days of shooting, more footage, more writers to interview — but as an executive, I had to put some limits. It was like being two different people at once.  Now that I can look back, I better understand the limitations I had and their effects on me. And an American alternative presentation — that wasn’t able to be made at the time —  is something important to pursue going forward, as much to “do right” by NYC.

Who was/is your target audience?

The original documentary targets an Italian audience who is fascinated with New York but doesn’t really have a knowledge of it, as well as everybody else who wants to know, once and for all, the real history of one of the most relevant artistic, cultural and, to a certain extent, political movements of the 20th century.  Now I need to broaden the reach beyond Italy.


Will New Yorkers have the opportunity to view it?

Unfortunately, as of now, they don’t, and that’s a travesty.  That’s where my fight is now — finding a means to change that.  Everything about this movie is New York City.  The residents need this film.  It needs to be a contribution to their historical record.  Hopefully, I’ll find the funding for what is really a “preservation” project.  People aren’t around forever.  The interviews with important artists in Graffiti A New York, all in English, need to come “home.”

I certainly agree!  Graffiti A New York is not only a passionate homage to the roots of graffiti, but an essential visual and spoken record of a significant NYC era.  What’s ahead for you? Can we expect any more films on the topic of street art or graffiti?

Currently I’m working on a project for the Discovery Channel for which I hope to be able to announce details soon.  Later this year I’m doing a documentary on Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalogue that I’m very excited about.  This fall I’ll be shooting a short project in New York again.  I’m also continuing to show Frankie: Italian Roulette, my short fictional film from last year, at festivals across the US.  Next up for Frankie is the Crossroads Festival in Jackson, MI on April 2. Even Frankie is about life in NYC and fighting to stay there, so — going forward —  it’s no surprise that I’ll, of course, continue to focus on the themes present in Graffiti A New York: art, actions of consequence, social responsibility of both the system and the individual, and, of course, the city of New York itself.  And, fingers crossed, we can make the US adaptation of Graffiti A New York.  That really must happen.

The questions for this interview were formulated by Lois Stavsky and Tara Murray after viewing the European market release Graffiti A New York.

Note: Hailed in a range of media from the Huffington Post to the New York Times, our Street Art NYC App is now available for Android devices here.

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Brooklyn-based director and cinematographer Jared Levy has traveled the world pursuing his distinct docu-journalism.  Among his projects is Graffiti Fine Art, an award-winning documentation of artists who participated in the 1st International Graffiti Biennial in São Paulo, Brazil. More recently, NYC’s Cern was the subject of a short film called Updating Philosophies. Eager to find out more, I met up with him last week in Williamsburg.

Your award-winning film Graffiti Fine Art is a wondrous ode to graffiti. What drew you to graffiti? Any early memories?

I grew up in a small town on Long Island, where there was no graffiti. And I was indifferent to it on my trips into the city. It was when I visited São Paulo in 2009 that I first discovered it on another level and appreciated it.


What brought you to São Paulo?

I had recently graduated from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, and I was interested in developing a portfolio. After spending two weeks on vacation in Brazil during Carnaval, I was eager to return to the country. I arrived without any preconceived notion about what topics I would cover. At the time I felt like it was better to explore what was there than to conjure up ideas about a place I didn’t know. It didn’t take long for São Paulo’s graffiti to grab my attention. The city is completely covered in paint.

How were you able to meet and connect to so many street artists in a relatively short period of time?

Lots of serendipity!  I was at a bar in São Paulo when I mentioned to one of the few English-speakers there, Nathalie Stahelin, that I was interested in the art I’d seen on the walls of the city. She introduced me to Melton Magidson, the former owner of Magidson Fine Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Melton then introduced me to Ethos, who became the subject of my first graf video. Up until that point it had been three relatively frustrating months of dead ends. These encounters, which all happened within a crazy two-day span, dramatically changed my entire situation in Brazil.


How did you then go on to film Graffiti Fine Art?

Through the Ethos video, I started meeting more writers by offering to take photos of them painting. It was a great way to meet people, exchange art and become friends. Eventually I met Binho. His friendship, along with a few other artists, really helped set the stage for my time in São Paulo. Graffiti Fine Art developed when Binho invited me to film an event he was curating — the 1st International Graffiti Biennial featuring works by 65 street artists from 13 countries at the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture in São Paulo.

What was the experience like?

For eight days the museum stayed open 24/7. Most artists came to work on their murals after hours. I never wanted to miss a mural so during those eight days and nights, I took naps on a bench in a janitor’s closet when I wasn’t filming. I never left the grounds of the museum. It was a blast hanging out and meeting artists from all over the world. A priceless experience. 



How do you feel about the movement of graffiti into museums?

On one level it thrills me, as it gives these artists the respect and recognition they deserve. But it’s no longer graffiti. The definition of that is pretty cut and dry – letters in the public domain. But at the time this was a new question for me to explore, being relatively new to the scene. For the artists however, this conversation was old news. I think that actually helped the film in that it brought fresh eyes to the topic. I hope it made the film more accessible for people not familiar with graffiti/street art. But to answer your question, it’s a game of semantics and I’m just glad these incredibly talented artists are reaching new audiences.

In addition to being visually mesmerizing, your film touches on so many key issues about the movement that speak to us. Were you satisfied with your final work?

Yes, absolutely. I learned a lot through every part of the process. It’s interesting, four years removed from it and my relationship to the film is still evolving. My thoughts on the piece both technically and conceptually continue to change as I improve as a filmmaker. But, honestly, I just grow fonder of it really, as it reminds me of a specific time in my life. A really fun and exciting time.


What – would you say – were your greatest challenges in working on this project in São Paulo?

Certainly language.  Even after I learned basic Portuguese, idioms and slang terms – specific to the city —  confounded me. And São Paulo’s infrastructure is particularly challenging. Filming all of the São Paulo exterior timelapses was a 3-4 week battle, but now that it’s over, I definitely cherish the unique relationship I feel I have with the city itself. Also, it is always delicate filming and representing process. Building trust and creating authentic capture is a challenge I continually face. Even more so in this case when you’re a foreigner asking for an artist’s trust. I respect the artists greatly for opening up to me.

Your company Navigate recently produced a short film which you directed called, Updating Philosophies, featuring NYC artist Cern.  Can you tell us something about that process?

Justin Hamilton, the film’s cinematographer/co-owner of Navigate, and I filmed Cern for seven days – at work on a mural, on a truck and with his balloon structures. Each day we got up before sunrise to assure the best light. The final video is about 5 minutes. Its focus is on the creative process. 



Why did you decide to make Cern the subject of a video?

I originally met Cern, who is a New Yorker, in São Paulo for Graffiti Fine Art. So it’s come full circle in a way. Once I moved back to NYC in 2011, I developed a personal relationship with him. I’ve always found him to be thoughtful, kind and talented. I knew a short film taking a deeper look at his ideas would yield great results. He’s a smart, philosophical dude. It’s also my first crack at a graffiti/street art related piece since Graffiti Fine Art. My relationship with Cern felt like a great opportunity to dive back into the genre with a — hopefully — sharper cinematic eye.

What’s ahead?

I’m interested in pursuing and telling different types of stories that connect us all. I find process to be far more interesting than the end result. Through process you can learn so much about the creator — where often the connection to the audience exists. Telling these types of thoughtful and authentic stories is what we hope to continue at Navigate.

Interview by Lois Stavsky; all images courtesy of Jared Levy and Julian Walter

Photos: 1. On the set of Updating Philosophies with Cern; 2  Ces, close-up from Graffiti Fine Art still; 3. Suiko, close-up from Graffiti Fine Art still; 4. Jaz, close-up from Graffiti Fine Art still; 5. Shockclose-up from Graffiti Fine Art still; 6. Cern, still from Graffiti Fine Art; 7-8. On the set of Updating Philosophies with Cern

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In 2002, Mario Rosales left his native Guatemala to pursue an MFA in Media Arts Production at The City College of New York. In fall 2008, Mario began production on his first feature film El Regreso de Lencho.”  Presenting a poignant portrait of his country’s searing suppression of street art and hip-hop culture, “The Return of Lencho” begins a one-week run at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, starting tomorrow.

You seem to blur the boundaries between artist/filmmaker and activist. What was your intent in this film?

My intent – as an artist — is to create awareness and, ultimately, bring about social and political change. The focus of The Return of Lencho is the state’s persecution of youth and street art culture.

Who is the inspiration for Lencho?

My younger brother.  He was shot and tormented by the police in Guatemala for no reason. He was assumed to be a gang member simply because he has tattoos on his legs. My brother is an anthropologist. In the course of the film – ironically and tragically – one of the main actors, Carlos Chacon, aka El Chino, a graffiti and hip-hop artist, intent on passing his skills onto others, was assassinated. The movie is dedicated to his memory.

In The Return of Lencho graffiti is presented as a people’s movement that reclaims the streets from advertisements and desolation. What do you see as the role of graffiti in society?

The role of all art should be to give a voice to the people. In the 1980’s all of Guatemala’s expressive voices were silenced. An entire generation of artists, photographers and painters was annihilated. Graffiti represents the voice of the suppressed.

Stinkfish street art

What do you see as the future of graffiti in your country?

It has begun to explode and I’m certain it will continue to do so.

The scene with the curator comes off as metaphorically rich. Is this particular curator modeled after someone in particular or is she simply a symbol of imperialism and warped values? The sex between Lencho and her seems quite hostile – with a reversal of roles, with her as the victim, almost as though she’s taking on the guilt of her entire race. Can you tell us something about what’s going on here and the kind of response it has elicited?

Yes, she is a symbol of an exploitive Western imperialism.  I’ve had many responses to that scene. I’ve been asked, in fact, to remove it. That is how I know just how effective it is.

Was it difficult to get permission from the government to produce this film? Was it possible to get funding?

I promoted it as a film about muralism. We spoke to the ministry of culture, and we never talked about the film’s political content. The Guatemalan government does not provide any support at all for the arts unless you have a connection. 

"Lorenzo Masnah street art"

Who is the intended audience?

It is wide — from Guatemalans and Latin Americans and immigrants to a general audience  in the U.S., particularly those people who are not aware of the impact of this country’s international policies.

You seem to imply a counter relationship between graffiti and globalization. Can you elaborate?

Globalization has become synonymous with colonization. Graffiti is a means to reclaim our spaces from global corporations.  Yet at the same time — quite ironically — graffiti has become a world-wide movement as a result of globalization.

What’s next?

The U.S. theatrical premiere of The Return of Lencho will begin tomorrow, Friday, November 9th at the Quad Cinema and continue through the 15th.  There will be Q&A’s after the 7:50pm show tomorrow and Saturday and after the 5pm show on Sunday. We plan to continue touring college campuses with the film and bring all the artists featured – Stinkfish, Bastardilla, Aeon and Soft – back to Guatemala early next year.

Photos of film stills featuring Stinkfish’s art courtesy of Mario Rosales and Occularis Films; photo of Lorenzo Masnah’s art on East Village shutter by Lois Stavsky.