Beautiful Losers begins with an amusing introduction by two middle aged men in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge: “Hello Melbourne! Hope you enjoy the film. We brought cocaine!” Who are these people? You wonder. They look like two ordinary, non-descript guys, the kind you see down at the hardware store in the suburbs.

Aaron Rose and Chris Johanson are two of the artists interviewed in Beautiful Losers, a documentary about the diverse collective of young punks, rockers and skaters who congregated in New York City in the 90s to create art. Jilted by the mainstream, they gathered at the grungy Alleged Gallery in the Lower East Side, partied hard, slept on concrete floors, and created a form of DIY art that reflected their no-rules, no-barriers, no-obligations approach to life. Together they kicked off a wave of graffiti-based street art, which profoundly influenced the direction of contemporary art, fashion, music and film.

The film splices interviews, film footage and photographs of the key artists of the movement – the ‘beautiful losers’ – including Thomas Campbell, Cheryl Dunn, Shepard Fairey, Geoff McFetridge, Mike Mills, Barry McGee, Harmony Korine, Margaret Kilgallen, Steven Powers and Ed Templeton. It paints a picture of New York City in the 90s as a whirlpool of inspiration. The group’s original approach to art-making fostered an intense cross-pollination of ideas, and the fertile, creative atmosphere was one of encouragement – there were no stakes, no money, no fame in what they were doing – it was all just about making stuff.

In one of the key interviews of the film, the artists discuss why they feel compelled to make art. Universally they speak of rejection, dispossession, frustration and wanting to antagonise those on the ‘inside’. They were bored, creative kids with no formal training who used art to explore their individuality and to discover their place in a world, which they felt had shunned them. In their eyes, there was beauty in imperfection and a richness in the undervalued, and thus they chose to display their art on the streets – billboards, train carriages, painted walls – as it was a platform for broadcasting their views in a raw and uncut manner.

However, as the film progresses, you suspect that the sense of ‘otherness’ that pervaded the sub-cultural creative aesthetic of the beautiful losers will eventually be lost – otherwise how come some of the artists’ names are familiar now?

And so it happened. Their commercial success began with the Minimal Trix skateboard art show in 1992, which was written up in Thrasher Magazine. This led to an exhibition in Hollywood, the seminal Independents Show at Alleged Gallery in 1997, and exhibitions in the US and internationally at mainstream galleries and festivals.

It’s ironic that these social outsiders eventually end up being legitimised and celebrated by conservative culture, exhibiting in established galleries and having their work turned into corporate advertising. By the end of the film, you see that the group’s approach has started to fracture as commercial success impacts differently on each of them. Some of them pronounce that they don’t want any part of it. Others are defensive of their success, claiming that they are still true to their art. The beautiful losers are no longer making art by kids, for kids – have they sold out or merely grown up?

This review first appeared in Trepass Magazine.

Read the review of the Speakeasy Cinema experience here.