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'Nickel City Vandals' stirs controversy on Buffalo's graffiti scene

Nickel City Vandals from Aaron Ferguson on Vimeo.

Last night, I stopped by Daddy's Garage (a sweet new graffiti gallery and shop on East Ferry Street) for a packed screening of Aaron Ferguson's new film "Nickel City Vandals." which Ferguson was kind enough to let us embed above.

(I had to miss this panel on the future of culture in Western New York at Daemen College in order to attend the screening. But this look at a small subsection of Buffalo's active street culture that's just beginning to inch out from the underground turned out to be well worth it.)

The documentary project, completed as a part of Ferguson's studies as an MFA student at the University at Buffalo, considered this moment on Buffalo's graffiti scene. The filmmaker and many of his subjects -- including the hilarious and insightful legit graffiti artist known as Brakes as well as Sam Lunetta, director of the city's anti-graffiti task force -- painted a picture of a graffiti scene in a kind of holding pattern. The scene lacks the artistic sophistication of some years ago, the film suggested, but was beginning once again to pick up steam as a crop of new graffiti artists with unique styles beginning to rise through the ranks.

But not everyone agrees with Ferguson's portrayal of the Buffalo scene. At the screening, which drew a large, diverse and curious crowd, representatives of the hard-core BF (or Buffalo's Finest) graffiti crew handed out a strongly worded statement calling the film's integrity into question. Below is a scan of the letter, which was handed to me in an envelope by a very serious-looking girl after the screening ended. At the bottom of the sheet is a graphic representing legendary Buffalo graffiti artists known by the tags "ATAK" and "HERT." The latter of these has been claimed by Buffalo-born Ian Deeber, a graffiti world cause célèbre who pleaded guilty to graffiti charges in Pittsburgh and was sentenced to prison in 2010.

Graffti03

The distribution of the flyer created a bit of a stir at the screening, but the filmmaker and the subjects in attendance seemed relatively nonplussed. "The graffiti scene can get wild sometimes with others trying to hate on and degrade people who are trying to do positive things for the community," Brakes wrote after the screening.

Controversy and all, the night seemed to both signal and encourage a new and broader appreciation for graffiti, as has the recent mural tribute to the late Spain Rodriguez painted near Buffalo's Central Terminal. We're entering a new era when it comes to how the public views street art and graffiti -- whether legal or illegal. And from where I'm standing, films like "Nickel City Vandals," which will always raise the ire of underground artists who would prefer to remain so, are a welcome addition to the city's broader culture.

--Colin Dabkowski

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