Piece by Piece

"Good"

Piece by Piece Review


Blurbs for Piece by Piece promised I would "never look at graffiti the same again," and that's a fair enough claim. I happen to live in San Francisco, and Piece by Piece is a 20 year analysis of the SF graffiti culture. Well, not so much an analysis as an outright celebration of it: Piece by Piece spends about five of its 78 minutes outlining the possible negatives of covering every square inch of wall space with people's scrawlings and the other 73 hoisting them up as misunderstood geniuses.

I'll happily admit that I don't "get" graffiti. This documentary tries its hardest to explain the difference between "burners" and "throw-ups," but ultimately the reality is in the video: Almost all of the graffiti we see is people writing their name on stuff, or rather their tagger handle (Dug, Grey, Joro, Twick... you know, words with only a few letters that can be written very quickly) and/or the name of their tagger gang (usually three quick letters). Some of these pieces are large and colorful, but only rarely do they approach anything I'd genuinely call art. In fact, the film is subtly condescending to taggers who use pictures in their graffiti, but the few pictorial graffitos that we see are the most striking ones in the film.

It's this dichotomy that makes Piece by Piece so hard to thrill to. Sure, it's impressive that someone could climb a giant fence or shimmy up a drainpipe to paint their name on a steel girder for a few hours, but, again, does that make it art? Regardless of your answer, now tell me: Is a bunch of kids with magic markers defacing a bus with scribbling the same thing? This is just vandalism, and Piece by Piece recognizes this in a few of its more honest moments.

It's nice to hear some taggers (many are interviewed here, and a fair number keep their faces completely covered) say they don't like etched windows or defaced storefronts. I wonder how they might feel about the scrawling on the street sign in front of my house. Is that art or vandalism? As near as I can tell, it involves a dollar sign. Is that a political statement?

Piece by Piece flirts with being touching when it tells the tale of one tagger who climbed on top of downtown apartment to write graffiti and got caught in the process by the guy who lived there. He ended up shot in the head and, of course, died. He's such a martyr that every living tagger has a story about him, including a tale about exactly what happened that night, as if they were eyewitnesses to his killing. It's so blatant that in the end you start to feel incredulous instead of sympathetic. This actually hits rock bottom when the film tries to connect graffiti-writing's recent classification as a felony with rape and murder, absurdly implying that graffiti artists might be executed for their crime.

The film certainly covers almost every facet of graffiti that I can conceive of. The only nagging question that I still have is really a simple one: Who's gonna clean all this crap up?

I expect San Franciscans will find the film more fascinating than others simply because it shows longtime buildings and locations in a wholly new light. I moved here in 1997 and had no idea that some of the "legal" tagging venues had ever been such. After a crackdown in the mid-'90s, now they're all painted over. For the better, if you ask me.

The DVD includes tons of extra painting footage, extra interviews, shots of SF graffiti, and a commentary track. Additionally, a 50-page printed booklet offers additional interviews and photos.



Piece by Piece

Facts and Figures

Run time: 79 mins

In Theaters: Thursday 13th January 2005

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

IMDB: 6.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Nic Hill

Producer: Nic Hill

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