I'll admit the graffiti scene, while prevalent all over the Metro Detroit area, was always something I was aware of but never paid much attention let alone respect to as a Michigan resident. Even now after listening to the often self-consciously wise and self-aggrandizing words of New York based graffiti art legend Julius Cavero, I'm still not sure where I stand on the validity of the art form which prides itself on vandalism of public property. But I will say with the new documentary The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero and having learned just how far back into the 1970s and 1980s the aptly named Terrible T-Kid 170's work stretched, beginning as guerrilla vandalism before evolving into commission paid work that extended to England and France, there's more than a little bit of weight to Cavero's comments now. As it turns out, despite patting himself on the back for how much he claims other artists have taken from his paintings, the former Brooklyn based gang member is unquestionably a bona fide original talent to learn from and, yes, respect. Something of a short puff piece on the man, The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero tends to eulogize it's titular subject but I would say after seeing the fruits of his talents on display that he's kind of earned the right to some hagiography.
Comprised of behind-the-scenes footage of Cavero jumping fences at night to work on painting boxcars via night vision, preexisting footage of his England and France business trips, numerous interviews from other graffiti artists and former colleagues and a wealth of screen time of the subject himself, in under an hour we get a pretty solid picture of the man and his self-taught artistry. What could have been wholly one-sided winds up allowing ample room for the debate over graffiti's legitimacy in the art world and whether or not it's art, vandalism or both. Showing off just how death defying the practice of illegal graffiti art making can be, we get a number of scenes of actual police raids where Cavero and his team of fellow graffiti artists are escorted off of premises along with recollections of how Cavero overcame his substance abuse addiction with prison time. We also see Cavero brushing up alongside celebrities such as producer Brian Grazer as his international fame begins to take hold of the mainstream consciousness. Where the documentary falters however is in the quality of the footage which often ranges from sub-par YouTube quality to just plain fuzzy and blurry with a grittiness that made me confuse this with the CKY videos. Amplifying the grit further are scenes where a videotaped interview is filmed again through a CRT television unit, making the footage look a bit like Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers. The flavor is undeniably homemade like the graffiti itself but there were a few times the aesthetic was hard on the eyes
If you've made up your mind already on what graffiti means to the art world, it's unlikely The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero will have much change on that perception whether it be positive or negative. Reason being is that this is mostly a one-sided affair with little emphasis on law enforcement's point of view or comments of cleanup crews forced to deal with washing graffiti off. Being a newcomer and outside observer I was at once enamored with the homegrown craft that goes into making graffiti I drive by each day and just slightly annoyed at Cavero's narcissism whenever he talked about his past. We know you're great, but do you have to keep reminding us each time you're on camera of your grandeur? If you take the man's vanity and his street smarts with a grain of salt, you will find yourself in good company alongside a genuine artistic talent who absolutely deserves a spotlight for other budding artists to draw inspiration from. Despite the grungy look of the documentary, that too winds up suiting the homegrown subject matter perfectly and does a good job of showing the desolate and impoverished section of New York getting new life through Cavero's art. I thought of the Heidelberg Project in the suburban Detroit area which famously took a strip of houses and transformed them into vibrant and colorful works of outdoor art. While obviously unanimously praising Cavero without pretense, this was still a cool little rumination on the graffiti art scene through the eyes of one of it's most significant practitioners.
- Andrew Kotwicki