Graffiti practitioners who commonly identify themselves as "graffiti artists" claim a pedigree that originates with prehistoric cave art. Whether you accept the claim that the words and images put on public spaces without the consent of the owner or the State is art or not, certainly the practice is venerable and widespread. Typically considered a scourge by local governments, reviled by affected property owners, ambivalently received by cultural custodians, and embraced by disaffected youths, the modern practice has proven to be endlessly fascinating to photographers and videographers. Dozens of photography books, videos, and films have been produced about graffiti. One of the better recent efforts is filmmaker Jon Reiss's Bomb It (2008).
Though graffiti artists often appear no less obsessed with questions of who, what, where and when, than the video arcade game players featured in Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), Reiss isn't particularly interested in settling claims. Ignoring most of the tempest-in-a-teacup controversies, Bomb It selectively covers the late 1960's nascent graffiti movement in Philadelphia, then moves on to New York City covering the period from 1971 when The New York Times took note of Taki 183's tagging of the East Side, through the next decade of dramatic growth of graffiti in scope, scale and complexity, on to the precipitous decline following the years of zero-tolerance enforcement, stiff penalties, and rapid clean-up, which has managed to largely suppress graffiti in NYC.
Following New York, Reiss travels to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, Barcelona, Capetown, São Paulo, Tokyo, and Los Angeles to explore local variations among the origins, motivation, and style of graffiti, and in the popular reaction and governmental response. The documentary participants are predominantly graffiti artists, but also include government officials, private property owners, and anti-graffiti activists. Despite the film's name, and though Reiss gives more screen time to graffiti supporters than opponents, Bomb It is not polemical agitprop. Reiss allows each participant to have his or her say free of narration, and though there is the occasional questionable call, Reiss generally avoids using the soundtrack or editing to push the viewer toward any particular conclusions.
Bomb It's 93-minute runtime is drawn from roughly 400 hours of footage with some 200 participants. Anti-graffiti advocates, officials, and property owners emphasize the societal costs associated with graffiti, while the advocates articulate the value of graffiti as a tool of protest and personal expression. Proponents ask why commercial advertising in public places is tolerated or even encouraged, but artistic expression is generally prohibited.
English subtitles play along with all non-English dialogue. These subtitles are forced, and no subtitle options are available.