Feb/Mar 2010

Off the Wall

In the 1970s, graffiti spread through New York and beyond

Hua Hsu


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. (Kids today have other "walls," on social-networking sites and blogs, where they make their digital marks.) 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."

The long-overdue reissue of Faith includes thirty-two pages of new photos. From our post-Giuliani vantage, we immediately notice how Naar created a document not just of graffiti but of 1970s urban decay: Paint chips off walls; windows are streaked and cracked, sidewalks gashed, plants parched and neglected. For Naar, the tags react directly to the city around them: Red and black words mock ghostly, peeling-off Nixon stickers; black scrawls grow like moss up abandoned buildings. Advertisements and graffiti clash for our attention. Campaign posters blot out a loopy, cursive tag on a ridged wall, while SOUL TRAIN 1 shares a sight line with a cigarette ad in a subway car. As Mailer and Naar toured the streets, they passed an anti-pollution placard. The photographer muttered, "That sign is a form of pollution itself."

City officials and others weren't sympathetic to Mailer's vision of "tropical peoples" trapped in dull environs, emblazoning the official world with their names. In 1979, conservative sociologist Nathan Glazer argued in the journal Public Interest that graffiti made law-abiding citizens fear they lived in a "menacing and uncontrollable" city, in which "the signs of official failure are everywhere." Glazer lacked the cynical glee of his countercultural peers, and seeded in his article was an agenda for modern policing: a "broken windows" approach to crime deterrence with a focus on seemingly trifling "quality of life" offenses.

By the time photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant began assembling their 1984 book, Subway Art, a new generation of artists had migrated to the subway tunnels and yards, and the hasty tag had evolved into overnight masterpieces covering whole train cars. Ubiquity was no longer the artist's measure; now, competition was over style and scale. Where Naar's juxtapositions sought the color contrast of graffiti complementing a chipped-away city, Chalfant and Cooper's photographs depict New York as a drab, colorless backdrop. Atop rusty elevated platforms, whole subway cars burst with bright colors, characters, and messages (happy holiday, dump koch). Many photos crop out the surroundings and fixate on details, like the artist Futura's masterful bubbles of fluorescent pastels. The lettering is abstract, the color combinations radiant. Each car competes with the next to be the most innovative, startling display.

Chronicle's twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Subway Art is a big, dazzling book. It is also something quite different—more of a tribute than a reissue. Included are dozens of additional photographs, yet gone are the glossaries and guides ("First he does an outline with a light color . . .") that made the original as much a call to arms as an art book. That first publication grouped photos according to theme, style, and history; this one eschews narration, perhaps because we know how the story ends.

The last page of the 1984 edition features a work by the artist Lee honoring the "children of the ghetto." In a thought bubble painted at the foot of the train, Lee wonders whether their art "will ever last." That he and others agreed to be photographed at all was answer enough. Art-world celebrity lured some subway painters (like Jean-Michel Basquiat), while the city's wrath discouraged the rest. Glazer's vision had found adherents in the mayor's office, and by the end of the '80s the graffiti scourge was vanquished. In the anniversary edition, Chalfant and Cooper honor Lee's anxiety about graffiti's future by denying it the final word. Instead, the last page returns the artists Skeme and Agent to childhood, horsing around inside a train, one balancing on the other's back, not a spray can or police officer in sight.

For those outside New York, though, Subway Art—along with the 1983 films Style Wars and Wild Style—was only the beginning. When Cooper met the São Paulo street artists Os Gêmeos in 2006, she recalls in a new afterword, they told her that photocopied Subway bootlegs had been a local hit in the 1980s. Mailer's martyrs had aspired to citywide fame. As it happened, their names traveled the world, inspiring new faiths.

"Born in the Streets—Graffiti," an exhibition that ran from July to November 2009 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, charted this legacy. The catalogue is a handsome if unwieldy 240-page survey of graffiti from 1970s New York outward. A large section toward the end brings us into the present day, with photographs of mostly legal graffiti from Europe, Asia, and South America. However, unlike the original Subway Art, Born doesn't close with a rumination on the ephemeral nature of the form or the future of its practitioners; rather, it concludes with a disclaimer: "This book presents graffiti and street art as forms of artistic expression. The publisher in no way endorses vandalism." It is a reminder how part of Faith and Subway's legacy is that graffiti is now part of the establishment, more beholden to law and commerce than Mailer could have ever imagined. For today's souvenir-hawking street-art superstars like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, protest and advertising are one and the same.

Despite the nostalgia for ghetto defiance they readily conjure, these older books are no less objects of commodification. No longer manuals for creative destruction, they complement coffee tables. The only contemporary images in Born that can compete come from São Paulo's daredevil pixadores, kids who scale high-rises in order to affix their gangly, insectlike tags in seemingly impossible places. It's the same instinct that drove prehistoric artists into the deepest hidden recesses of caves and that Junior 161 once described to Mailer: "You want to get your name in a place where people don't know how you could do it, how you could get up there. You got to make them think." Not about what to buy or whom to fear or vote for. To remind them: We are somebody.

Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College.

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