A Time Capsule, Ahead of its Time, of 1983 Bronx Graffiti Culture in Wild Style


At a moment when documentaries often feel compelled to blur the reality/fiction border for the sake of entertainment, something refreshing can be found in the inverse: a narrative feature that inadvertently lapses into a de facto doc. Such is true of Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn’s 30-year-old time capsule of the hip-hop community in the early ’80s Bronx. Zoro (Lee Quinones) is a young graffiti artist who’s constantly at work tagging his environs; he’s kept busy by avoiding cops, trying to win back his ex (Sandra Fabara) from a rival artist, and organizing a hip-hop concert. Plenty of significant themes are explored—the act of making graffiti as a reclamation of one’s space, the co-opting of countercultural work by mainstream taste (in one memorable sequence, Zoro is brought to a chic Manhattan party where the bejeweled host asks him to make her a mural)—but for all of the culture clashes it probes, Wild Style is most affecting as a vivid evocation of a moment in time. As Ahearn takes us on an anthropologically comprehensive tour of the south Bronx circa 1983—the rap battles, the parties where a mugger could be a friend of a friend, the bombed-out landscape that serves as a canvas—we’re given an authentic glimpse into the specific origins of a once-subversive culture that is now internationally embraced. The folks who made Wild Style probably didn’t realize it, but their fiction film was essentially a documentary of history in the early making.