If you've ever discovered first-hand how the 405 in Los Angeles can turn from the busiest freeway in America into the world's largest paved parking lot and - further -been lucky enough to be "involuntarily paused" beneath the right freeway underpass (until the Big One hits, anyway), perhaps you've seen 'graff' art a.k.a. graffiti art up close and personal.

         But if not and perchance you are a stranger still to these western shores, don't assume you've seen the authentic graff works just because of the national T.V. media's unparalleled and single-sided flogging of it recently. Because television directors always focus on the worst aspect of this very complex public phenomena: the dripping, looping 'tag job' vandals who cover parking meters, storefronts, 'Elect Lamar!' posters, etc. This approach was evidently deemed necessary so that the news jockeys could make the point, again and again, how helpless we all are about this; complete with shots of old white folks interviewed on their security-barred front porches shaking their heads and muttering, "Why can't someone just do something to these hooligans?" For very early on in their coverage it became obvious what the media's slant was: these guys are all scumbags, and somebody should do something about it. Of course, seed planted, it wasn't long before Bernard Goetz-style 'tag vigilantes' began shooting 'taggers' on sight. Reports appeared in the Valley section of the L.A. Timesof a man who tried to knife a tagger to death on a freeway overpass: it also detailed other abuses against taggers, including one of a youth who fell to his death after being harassed. It made for some great headlines and "see, we told you so)" stories on the local television news, but...  only one small problem (for all you yahoos who are scratching your neo-skin jobs and going 'Huh? What's he got against killin' those degenerate punks?'): the media blindingly lumped together what are, in actuality and as is revealed in Bob Bryan's new video documentary Graffiti Verite, three separate sub-groups of people whom you might otherwise say are 'defacing public property': so- called 'tag bangers' (punks trying to make their mark on their turf by pulling weenie-styled spray tags of their names, their work a dripping mess before they're baggy-assed pants are even in motion fleeing); gangbangers (who mark their territories as much to delineate drug-flow, boundaries and thereby keep the peace as to deface property; too, it's a practical necessity given the stupid gringos, who get lost looking for the place to score and no doubt find the markings helpful); and the least understood of all (until now, anyway), 'graff artists themselves.

         Now, take a look at some of the reproduced frames (above and below). Lumping what these guys do in with the rest is like saying your average Mickey Mouse cartoon and Debbie Does the Dark Brothers Part IV are the same because they both come in a glossy video box; they may be rendered on the same medium, but otherwise, all formal and content-based similarities evaporate. It's the same mistake currently being made about graff artists and their works by both the media and the city of Los Angeles (which currently doesn't seem to want to debate the finer points of aesthetics with these 'delinquent juvies' and therefore bans all such
works as 'vandalism) when they lump what the graff artists do in with the tagbangers and gangbangers.

        It's an interesting social and artistic phenom in other words. On the one hand, these graff artists -- some of whom's work is truly outstanding and all of it, by and large, at least vibrant and alive -- are breaking the law and 'defacing' public property. On the other hand, the property in question tends to be the kind of storefront-from-hell-long-since-gone looking stuff more at home with Kubrick's images of 'Nam in Full Metal Jacket  than, say, what you might picture in your head of what should rightly be in Compton or City of Industry, California. A lot if not most of the structures the graff artists work upon are abandoned and dangerous; and yet, one can't ignore the fact that their efforts are perceived as promoting 'hooliganism' by the media and many formerly) middle class, angry white male types. Further exaggerating the moral difficulties of their work (and when was the last time any contemporary artwork invited moral questioning at all, Newt's attacks on the NEA as Satan, Inc., excepted?). a handful of the profiled graff artists have been able to have their work exhibited and sold in some progressive galleries on Melrose Avenue, thus meaning they ultimately profited from their so-called 'crimes.' One of them was even invited to put the only 'on surface' permanent 'tag art' at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles; the guy literally tagged a ceiling beam (over your head as you enter), which will be preserved this way for all time (or at least until the MOMA has a bad funding year).

        But why shouldn't they profit like all other artists from their livelihoods? After all, they're all well-trained (some self-taught with years of practice) and there are only so many jobs for 'staff artist' in the corporate hierarchies. And then there is the question of the living conditions in which they work. That's what the documentary captures so clearly. They live in a nightmare combatzone of nonstop wars: 'wars on drugs,' 'war on poverty,' 'war on illiteracy.' There are no jobs to be had by and large but  there's plenty of black market opportunity. And most involve packing concealed weapons and carrying dangerously large amounts of cash. Not to mention 10-year minimum sentencing guidelines if you get caught. At least, it can be argued, the graff artists' work is (quasi) legitimate, has value for the neighborhoods in which they are created (the
non-gang residents tend to like them bemuse they raise the sense of community so often
absent and sure beats another Marlborough or Drink Tecate billboard), and .. most startlingly of all -- doesn't involve anyone stabbing, shooting or robbing someone else. What a shocking concept: free art for depressed economic zones. We should definitely lock 'em up and throw away the key.

         The videomaker wisely allows the  twenty-plus graff artists in Grafitti Verite'  to tell their stories in their own words. And  if you happen to conjure up images of roaming gangbangers protecting graff artists as part of being one big, happy family, think again. The docu clearly shows how often the  graff artists are victimized by 'bangers,  themselves. One artist relates how his home boy was gunned down in cold blood and how he himself barely escaped alive when he and his friend asserted their right to be graff artists on turf some local 'bangers' thought belonged only to them. Accounts such as this are not uncommon, according to the artists. Another problem is defacing: the 'bangers often mar the graff works for sheer spite.

         Production value is very high for Graffiti Verite'. Shot on what looks to be Betacam SP or really great Hi 8, it is a visually hypnotic ride. Bryan's editing style isn't cataclysmic and doesn't call attention to itself, rather. he simply but effectively keeps the rhythm, cutting from one gorgeous mural to the next. There are literally hundreds of works profiled in this video's fast 45 minute running time, and given how many will perish because of their precarious nature and exhibition strategies, this gives Verite'  true historical value, as it's almost likely this will be the only source of these particular works of art ever collectively available. Recommended, but with one small caveat: we wish the price were a bit lower. While we understand Mr. Bryan isn't getting rich.. it's kind of hard justifying the cost unless you're really into graff art (in which case you should definitely order it) or if you have deep pocket.. But if you get a chance to see it (it's airing on many local T.V. public access and PBS Stations currently)  or you own a videotape store with cool rentals, you should definitely stock it. Available from the filmmaker for $21, which includes postage. Bryan World Productions; P.O. Box 74033; Los Angeles, CA 90004.