In the forty years since Wild Style was released, this small budget independent movie has stood as a testament to a scene, a subculture and a city that seems almost unimaginable today.
Amidst a flurry of change, the nascence of a renaissance, a happenstance of abandonment and neglect colliding with the exuberantly wayward energies of invention and hope, Wild Style captured something all too illusive, fleeting and ephemeral and set it down as an indelible record, like lightning in a bottle or a dream journal, truth and witness to a crazy fantasy so fantastic we might otherwise imagine it an urban myth. What started as a game of make-believe ended up changing reality for a generation of participants caught up in its imaginary, as well as for subsequent generations who have chased its impossible liberties ever since. Wild Style 40 is a celebration in the form of an exhibition, a family and friends reunion of the visual artists who defined an era and inspired a movement.
Charlie Ahearn, who wrote and directed Wild Style, once told me he was trying to make it like an art movie for teenagers, a song and dance family musical.
For all the hardboiled noire gangster pimp and pusher parables that have come to define urban celluloid, this paean to joy would be the infectious charm that makes this film so transformative and optimistic.
As the first and foundational movie of hip-hop, Wild Style’s ebullient enthusiasm characterized the spirit of ingenuity and community that manifested itself in DIY strategies and guerilla creativities bubbling up from the social and economic margins of bias and redlining.
This commonalty of experience between Uptown and Downtown, where the rituals of communication via the dance of b-boys, the rhymes of MCs or the lettering of train writers could go all-city before it conquered the world, is the genesis and genius of Ahearn’s movie. It allows the exotic with the wink of an insider’s gaze and the embrace of an unruly humanism.
Wild Style, though released in 1983 was largely filmed in 1981. This exhibition tries to convey the radical energy and rapid evolution of this culture over that brief time while both preserving the fertile ground from which these sensibilities emerged and acknowledging the legacy of these artists through time. Charlie Ahearn was a member of Colab (or Collaborative Projects) a collective of urban artists that engaged and addressed the inequities and hypocrisies of the city around them, most famously with the Times Square Show of 1980 in a derelict Times Square massage parlor.
Their ideas, infusing Downtown like a zeitgeist, are part of the filmmaker’s vision and tradition coming out of the lineage of experimental, underground and No Wave film in New York City, as well as essential to the free-thinking adventurous mindset that made Downtown so receptive and welcoming to these new hybrid expressions emerging Uptown.
While Wild Style 40 is in many ways a celebration of the graffiti art form that emerged out of this time and starred in the movie, it is centered within a broader circle of participation, including key figures from Colab, who were also forging new kinds of urban art, artists who were major supporters and benefactors of graffiti, the photographers who not only captured this movement but embodied it, and a few who have somehow carried these traditions with an authenticity and ingenuity that goes beyond what hip-hop sounds like or graffiti looks like today.
There are a lot of famous artists in this room, so there are many ways of trying to explain how and why they were put together. All of that is very important, but for me what really matters is that they are all friends, brought together again to mark a momentous occasion. They are:
Charlie Ahearn, John Ahearn, Janette Beckman, Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy), Cathleen Campbell, Henry Chalfant, Joe Conzo, Martha Cooper, Jane Dickson, Brian Donnelly (KAWS), Chris Ellis (Daze), Sandra Fabara (Lady Pink), Aaron Goodstone (Sharp), Eric Haze, John Matos (Crash), Leonard McGurr (Futura), Osgemeos, Phase 2, Lee Quinones, Rammellzee, Revolt, Don White (Dondi), Andrew Witten (Zephyr) and Martin Wong.
— Carlo McCormick
Installation images by Genevieve Hanson
Wild Style 40, Curated by Carlo McCormick is on view until January 13, 2024 at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery at 18 Wooster Street in New York City.