Talking Tag With Graffiti Docmaker Jon Reiss


Filmmaker Jon Reiss finds himself drawn to “subcultures with guts”—like the anarcho-industrial performance group Survival Research Laboratories, whose pieces he documented throughout the ’80s, and electronic/rave culture, a scene he profiled in the full-length Better Living Through Circuitry. Reiss’s most recent work, Bomb It, digs into the global graffiti movement and the drainpipe-scaling, subway-skulking writers who obsessively assert their existences on public space. I caught up with a visibly frustrated Reiss the morning after he’d learned that the city wouldn’t allow live painting outside an after-party for Bomb It‘s Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

So what happened with the after-party? I was so pissed off last night. We were going to have live painting outside [Chrystie Street’s 205 Club]. We got permission from the club, but then the local community board denied us, even though we were going to paint it over the next day. They said, “Any graffiti promotes graffiti.” It’s so obvious why this city is starting to look like Los Angeles.

On your Bomb It blog, you’re sympathetic to graffiti writers . . . Well, more and more, the landscape is being dominated by advertising. Graffiti kids see that and say, “Well, fuck, why can’t I put up what I want to put up?” Obviously, we live in a capitalist society, but things are a little skewed these days and people are going to react against not being allowed to have a say in what goes in so-called public space. And frankly, if I’d had a huge Molotov-bomber can of black paint last night—I was pissed.

But the film does seem balanced. We added some anti-graffiti stuff at the end because it was a little too pro. But it’s important to show both sides. If you don’t, people smell a rat.

What drew you to the culture initially? I’ve always been a lover of outsider art and graffiti is the ultimate form. It’s kids who’ve had no formal training, who’re just out doing the streets and taking all the risks for doing it: potentially getting killed and jail time. And after Better Living Through Circuitry, I was looking for another modern culture that might have some guts to do a documentary about. And it turns out that one of the people in Circuitry was a [graffiti] writer. She hooked me up with [early-’80s writer] Sharp and he was just amazing. He had a lot of very articulate things to say. I could immediately see that there was so much behind the culture than the stuff on the walls. It immediately became apparent that this has been going on for thousands of years. I still remember driving around with Sharp and him talking about “Kilroy Was Here” and realizing, “Of course, mankind needs to write on walls.” That’s what is so funny about trying to criminalize it. People have been doing it, as KRS-One says in the film, since the birth of human consciousness.

Could your subjects get prosecuted for scenes in Bomb It ? There’s nothing in our film that actually could be used against them in a court of law.

Did you consult a lawyer about this? No, no. We just tried to be careful.

Have you ever tagged? Once, in an abandoned factory in Barcelona. I was pathetic.

Bomb It plays Friday at Regal Cinemas Battery Park and Sunday at AMC Village VII. For more information, visit