Book Review: The Faith of Graffiti

Kathryn Born

There are two main thoughts on graffiti. One, that graffiti is a beautiful art form, and two, that people who paint on other people’s buildings should be thrown in jail.  And there’s not a lot of in between.

The Faith of Graffiti, by Norman Mailer and Jon Naar (here), goes with the former. In a big way.

The reason I wanted to read this book is that for once it adressed the kind of graffiti I see most of the time. When people talk about street art, or this massive, local pool of street art photos on Flickr, it focuses on some really impressive murals. This book, however – this is our parent’s graffiti. It’s the graffiti you see every day (except not in this quantity anymore, in most places).

Bookforum did a better review than I’m doing, so I’ll quote:

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.”

The book starts with a comparison to Robert Rauschenberg erasing Willem de Kooning and selling it. “Authority imprinted upon emptiness is money.” So the essay by Mailer does a nice job of examining the need to write your name on something, claiming something, being a name, an identity – and seeing yourself in an industrial structure that ignored you.

But then, Mailer being Mailer, it somewhat goes off the rails. I’ve been to France and there’s tons of graffiti, Mailer have gone bezerk at the rampant grassroots urban beautification going on. Here’s a sample (click the image to read an excerpt):

click to enlarge

But what’s neat, and what is art, is that graffiti evolves like everything else. This is pure 70’s graffiti. Tristan Hummel, one of CAM’s writers and our resident expert on street art, said graffiti is a term that needs to be archived, that the stuff today can’t be called graffiti, it’s moved onto something new. It’s become something that doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s no longer graffiti.

From an art perspective, that’s true. As soon as this book came out, graffiti changed.

Yet agree or disagree with these guys on beauty vs. defacement, the book changes the way you see a scribble, a marker-made splash of color on formica, a tag that represents a human. It makes you touch it with your finger and say, “OK, I see you now.”