Back in the 1970s, lifelong New Yorker and filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer had never really noticed the graffiti that adorned subway trains for much of the Me Decade. “Like a lot of strap-hangers, I’d wait for the subway on a platform — my stop was the 103rd street station,” the 83-year-old says, calling from the uptown Manhattan apartment he’s lived in for decades. “Trains are whizzing past you, and you just want to get on. Even when you get in the car and would see tags done with Sharpies and Magic Markers, you’d hardly pay attention; you were too bust trying to find a seat.”
But one very early morning in 1976, while he was working with a food co-op up in the Bronx, Kirchheimer happened to notice the elevated trains that would criss-cross above the expressway — and suddenly realized what he’d been missing. “Giant names, elaborate drawings, these beautifully expressive murals — they took my breath away,” he says. “When a train is whizzing by you in a station, graffiti is literally in your face! It’s just a lot of colorful blobs passing you in a blur. But when you get a chance to see it at a distance, especially on elevated trains…my god! You realize what incredible works of art these things are.” The more Kirchheimer would watch the trains go by, the more he started to see a number of themes emerge. “There were a lot of guns, fire, angry fists and faces,” he says. “I started to think, Oh, this isn’t just visually interesting. This is like a scream from the ghetto.”
This epiphany would result in Stations of the Elevated, a 45-minute documentary Kirchheimer shot in 1977 about New York graffiti that chronicles the balloon-lettered signatures, cartoon-character-laden tags and car-length “wildstyle” epics that represent what’s know considered a classic era of street art. There are no interviews, talking-head testimonials or voiceover narration explaining who Lee63, Phase or Slave were, or what a burner was; in fact, even the sounds of the trains passing by were added after the fact. (“How are you going to carry a boom microphone when you’re sneaking into a trainyard?” asks the director.) What you do get is a tone poem of a scene hadn’t quite become a scene yet, and was still a little ways away from becoming one of the cornerstones of hip-hop culture. It’s a lost artifact of a key moment — arguably the key moment — for 20th century urban art.