Graffiti artists tend to do most of their talking with aerosol cans in the middle of the night. But Peter Gerard, a 25-year-old native of Columbia, spent four and a half years talking to the elusive artists about their work — usually in the bright light of day.
Gerard's documentary film, "Just to Get a Rep," examines the love-hate relationship between graffiti art and hip-hop and will play at 10:30 tonight at Ragtag Cinema and again on Monday at 9:45 p.m. The film is part of the True/False Film Festival, a four-day nonfiction film event that begins today at numerous venues in Columbia. Filmmakers and musicians from all over are in Columbia for a crammed schedule of movie screenings, lectures, discussions and concerts. The event has grown in popularity and prestige since its debut three years ago, with almost a 60 percent increase in attendance last year.
The international community of graffiti writers, as they call themselves, refused, at first, to cooperate with Gerard, who directed and produced the film. He started the project by filming at Paint Louis, a graffiti festival the city of St. Louis used to sanction but has since banned. Then he chipped and networked his way deeper into the culture from there.
"Once you're in, you know everybody because everybody is connected," he said. "Once someone had verified that I was cool, then it was cool."
Gerard and a six-person crew made "Just to Get a Rep" with their own money and are still trying to put together the funding to release it for a wider audience.
But the documentary doesn't have the feel of a low-budget production. Gerard traveled the world with his own cash to interview writers and others who have been important to the hip-hop and graffiti movements during the past 30 years. The film features footage from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Milan, Manchester, Rome, Venice, Paris and Barcelona. The documentary is artfully shot, with juxtapositions of color and black-and-white footage that bring the vibrant aerosol paintings increased dignity. The graffiti artists are portrayed as much more than scandalous scribblers on walls.
The film has been featured at 12 festivals, including the prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival in Scotland and Adelaide Film Festival in Australia.
Gerard was already interested in filmmaking as a student at Rock Bridge High School; he and friend Aaron Davis made a 30-minute film about teen life in Columbia titled "Out of Breath." In 2000 and 2001, Gerard and Davis hosted the Bargain Basement Film Festival, a forum for low-budget films at Ragtag Cinema.
Gerard graduated from Rock Bridge in 1999, then attended the University of Southern California before studying abroad and eventually moving to Scotland. He transferred to film school at Napier University in Edinburgh, where he currently works as a graphic designer and Web site producer. The job allows Gerard the flexibility to film and edit; he recently spent a few months in Ghana working on an upcoming documentary about a musician.
Gerard shot the bulk of "Just to Get a Rep" while studying at Napier University.
"Basically if I had enough money and I had time off from school, I would go somewhere and film," he said.
Gerard's brother, Cole, a New York City deejay known as Cousin Cole, recorded the soundtrack and is playing at a party for the documentary at Sapphire Lounge at 10 tonight.
Gerard said he found the community of aerosol artists he met so engaging that he had to force himself to stop filming after accumulating 60 hours of footage.
"I always found it really exciting to be around these people who really loved their art and just did it because it was a way of expressing themselves," he said.
The cast of characters Gerard assembles in "Just to Get a Rep" captures the diversity and texture of the international graffiti and hip-hop movements. Most are identified in the documentary only by their location and often-illegible graffiti signature.
There's the verbose Chicagoan who in one scene is uttering phrases such as "emulated the ideology that was presented" and in another is passionately rapping, "Hip-hop is what I love by, live by, hang my, give my, spray my, hang my, create my, innovate my, serenade my, dance my dreams on the streets of the Chi."
There's a ponytailed Parisian magazine editor; a New Yorker wearing a polo shirt whose every other word, it seems, is an expletive (as if to prove his legitimacy); and a Londoner in a black leather hat and sunglasses with a habit of calling things "wack."
The on-screen reunion of Comet and Blade, two famed 1970s artists who reminisce about the glory days of painting the No. 2 and No. 5 trains in New York City, illustrates the depth and history of the movement. They finish each other's sentences as they recall cutting class together to watch the passing trains they transformed with aerosol cans and attitude.
In another memorable scene, a graffiti artist describes his creative process as he tries to sell a small canvas version of his work in a parking lot. "This is an unlimited — limited — edition," he tells the crowd. "A collector's item right there, man. I stayed up all — all night! — making those circles right there, man." He points to the loops, repeating the word circle over and over to emphasize the tedium and care with which he created the artwork.
"I was dreaming of Cheerios all night," he says. "Cheerios was jumping out of my head in my sleep."
When an observer asks the writer how many hours it took him to create the painting, he perks up: "See, this man knows! How many hou—ers. Hou—ers, man. See those circles, man?"
Surely Gerard, who spent a year editing the film, can relate.