The Faith of Graffiti

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“As a major serving in the British military during World War II, Jon Naar witnessed a way of life reduced to rubble. In the winter of 1973, as a fifty-something photojournalist living and working in New York, Naar once again saw a devastated landscape. But here the names of the young and dispossessed — often no more than a handle and maybe a number corresponding to the street the kid lived on, like Junior 161 or Stay High 149 — were being spray-painted everywhere: bus shelters, handball courts, ice-cream trucks, subway trains, bridges, even trees. This was evidence of a citywide referendum on the American dream, he believed, with votes of no confidence tagged on every surface possible. Naar spent twelve days in crumbling neighborhoods of the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn with a Nikon FM and a Leica M-4, taking more than three thousand Kodachrome photographs of the burgeoning graffiti movement. He edited his trove down to forty-four gems, which he intended for a book, the first major work on this emergent subculture.

Naar’s publisher, Praeger/Alskog, had other plans. Norman Mailer was shown a mock-up and enticed to write an introductory essay. Mailer believed graffiti was the only pure art left after a century of high-brow self-consciousness; for Naar, graffiti may have been a colorful, energetic expression of ghetto alienation, but it was not art. At the time, self-inflicted gunshots and effaced signatures were popular among the cultural cognoscenti, but in these spray-painted streaks, Mailer found true mystery and transgression. ‘Graffiti lingers on our subway door as a memento of what it may well have been, our first art of karma,’ Mailer wrote in his introduction, ‘The Faith of Graffiti,’ which provided the collection’s title. Naar’s view of graffiti’s political character eventually gave way to his marquee collaborator’s aestheticized response.

Published in 1974 in the United States, England, and France in an edition of 71,500 copies and bootlegged by young aspirants throughout the rest of Europe, The Faith of Graffiti would be catalytic in two ways. While the youth of New York were not the first to tag their names in public spaces everywhere, Faith became graffiti’s portable catalogue of style. Photos of dainty serifs inspired an epidemic of mimicry, as teens worldwide took their alienation to the walls. Equally crucial to graffiti’s evolution was Mailer’s half-brilliant, half-mad essay, which elevated teenage vandals, most of whom feared the police and refused to be photographed, into art heroes. He saw the stirrings of a ‘new civilization’ in uptown innocents like Cay 161 and Hitler 2, the latter ignorant of his namesake save his ‘very big rep.’ ‘You hit your name and maybe something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle,’ Mailer wrote. ‘For now your name is over their name, over the subway manufacturer, the Transit Authority, the city administration. Your presence is on their presence, your alias hangs over their scene.’” —Hua Hsu, Bookforum