Global graffiti culture is decidedly subversive, and a genre of art that has been notoriously under documented throughout its history. This is likely because few documentarians have been willing to risk the legal ramifications of following graffiti artists, and because of the elusive nature of these daring artists themselves.

One filmmaker who dared to explore the world of graffiti within New York City’s cultural sphere is Manfred Kirchheimer, whose 1981 film Stations of the Elevated is being rereleased on the big screen after decades of reticence. Explains Joel Rose for NPR, “Stations of the Elevated is not a documentary in the usual sense. It’s only 45 minutes long; there’s no narrative and hardly any dialogue. The camera follows subway cars painted from top to bottom with vibrant graffiti compositions over a soundtrack of jazz by Charles Mingus,” of the unusual style in which the film was created. Stations of the Elevated made its debut at the New York Film Festival in 1981, and has garnered a cult following of graffiti fans and writers who have been anticipating its rerelease for decades.

Stations of the Elevated graffiti NYC

Stations director Manfred Kirchheimer was enchanted by the graffiti on NYC subway trains. / Image: JJ and Special K via Flickr CC

Rose notes that Stations of the Elevated was the first film to point a camera at the NYC graffiti movement, which is perhaps why the film itself mimics in part the rebellious nature of its subject. Some critics, such as graffiti writer Lee Quinones, have compared Kirchheimer’s documentary to that of a nature film because of the way he quietly stalks NYC’s graffiti-covered subway cars like they are living animals in the wild. “He went big-game hunting, and he caught the big game, you know?” says Quinones.

In this same way that wild animals are fascinating to watch on film, NYC’s painted subway cars possess an animalistic energy themselves. “There’s something really magical about when you see a train coming around a curve with a beautiful painting on it, and that painting is moving in more ways than that train is actually moving,” explains Quinones. “That film captures that. It’s something majestic that I can’t even explain completely.”

Last month, Stations of the Elevated celebrated its anticipated return to the big screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and is slated to appear in theaters around the country this fall.

Learn more about the film by visiting Brooklyn Street Art.