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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Bomb It" dives into the world of graffiti

Is it art, or is it vandalism? According to the hyperactive documentary "Bomb It," that's in the eye of the victim, tagger or passer-by...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Bomb It," a documentary directed by Jon Reiss. 93 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences.

Grand Illusion.

Is it art, or is it vandalism? According to the hyperactive documentary "Bomb It," that's in the eye of the victim, tagger or passer-by, who all see graffiti differently depending on the myriad forms it takes on countless surfaces across the global urban jungle.

"Bombing" is the inside term for leaving one's mark on the modern equivalent of cave walls. Much of it looks remarkably the same, whether in New York, Paris, Barcelona, São Paulo, Berlin, Cape Town or Tokyo. But take a closer look, and the socio-anthropologic differences emerge in dramatic relief.

A close look is exactly what filmmaker Jon Reiss gives us through numerous illuminating interviews with practitioners in those cities and many more. "Bomb It" is nothing if not breathless and authoritative in its global view of how graffiti spread from Philadelphia and New York to the world.

What most people recognize as graffiti started out as simple name-writing on walls, windows and lampposts, à la "Kilroy Was Here." Taggers developed catchy handles and typographies to create unique identities, and the film introduces us to many by way of clever graphical representations of their signatures. Reiss tracked down some of the fathers of tagging, including "Cornbread" and "Taki 183," who offer the early philosophy that drove them.

As the elaborate style of letter formation evolved, colorful murals followed, cutting a swath that reflected the distinctive disaffection of the individual who created them. In the 21st century, graffiti seems entirely too inadequate a word to encompass stuff that ranges from social commentary on walls in Palestine to gang taunts in the alleys of Los Angeles.

Because Reiss tries to cover it all, "Bomb It" sometimes feels like it's running off the rails. The kinetic editing that keeps bopping from continent to continent never lets up, and it's often impossible to absorb the impressive array of images. With fast-talking bombers speaking in several languages, the subtitles make it difficult to keep focus on the visuals. Nonetheless, it's an apt metaphor for the uncontrollable explosion of bombing all over the world.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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