Over a two week period in the winter of 1973, photographer Jon Naar and designer Mervyn Kurlansky journeyed about New York City, riding the subways, prowling the streets, scanning the walls of buildings to capture with a single lens reflex camera the growing phenomenon of inner city graffiti. A few dozen of these images, out of hundreds, was published as The Faith of Graffiti with an Introduction by Norman Mailer in 1974, and at the time the colorful and starkly beautiful images that appeared were current events. The controversial practice of graffiti writing was being hotly debated by the press and by politicians and was the bane of Mayor John Lindsay's administration. But Jon Naar's photographic approach to the tags and pieces that decorated the subway trains, buses and buildings of New York City was a work of photojournalism. He viewed his material with the eye of a true archivist, one who wanted to capture and document the growth of a phenomenon without judgment or politicizing. With Norman Mailer on board giving his own literary and artistic interpretation of graffiti, the book received great critical acclaim and became a classic in the genre, a much sought after photography book, but one that only contained a fraction of the images that Naar had assembled.
The Birth of Graffiti (Prestel Press, 2007) is Jon's first graffiti book in nearly 35 years and gives more reverence to his photographic art than Faith of Graffiti did. Limiting the text to a few short essays, the book emphasizes the images in a beautifully designed volume that presents many of the photographs uncropped and lovingly selected by the photographer.
What is stunning about The Birth of Graffiti, and indeed is inherent in the title of the book itself, is that many of these photographs have lain unpublished in protective storage for three and a half decades and are now important historical documents. What we are witnessing in these hauntingly beautiful images is a time locked period of history where New York City lay buried under a cosmetic layer of hieroglyphic writing that many praised as a powerful expression of the inner city imagination and others cursed as an urban blight at best and downright vandalism at worst. To anyone who lived in the city at that time, or even gazed with wide eyed fascination at the tags and pieces that decorated the buses, subway trains, storefronts and public monuments can approach this book with a sense of nostalgia and a memory of lost landscapes that once characterized New York.
Page after page brings us back to 1974 when New York was just a little less splashy than it is today, before Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump or Edward Koch, when it was still on a financial decline that in 1975-1976 almost brought it to bankruptcy. These photos show us a world that once was but is no more. Because graffiti was his subject, Jon Naar did not shoot around the tourist traps. We don't see Times Square or Lincoln Center or the grand brownstones of Brooklyn. Instead we are taken on a tour of forgotten walls and doorways, Spanish bodegas and tenement apartments, subway corridors and abandoned buildings, Harlem handball walls and Brooklyn boardwalks, the empty spaces of housing projects and school yards. If the graffiti was somehow airbrushed from these photos, they would still hold our fascination. They document the fine grained details of the landscape known by the few people who move through the images: the Spanish mother walking her daughter, the tired looking subway riders, the workers huddled in a doorway, a security guard taking a break by a utility exit. They go about their daily affairs with a fatigue and boredom that comes with any housing project or straphanger existence, walking past the urban sigils and tags and pieces and cryptic names and numbers as if they are just one more oppressive aspect of their city environment that they must endure from day to day.
But one must not neglect the writers themselves. When Naar and Kurlansky went off into the streets looking for graffiti, they had the good fortune of meeting, purely by chance, a gang of graffiti writers, young boys who ranged from ten to fourteen years old. Their group shot appear on the title page of The Birth of Graffiti and many more shots of them appear throughout, whether gathered together or posing separately in front of their tags. What I love about these shots is that rarely does Naar photograph them without some ghostly motion blur. These blurs give us a sense of the graffiti writer's energy who no doubt found it very difficult to stand still. As they write, the wall and the tag stays in clear focus while the writer is a whirling motion, connoting the artist in the instant moment of creation.
The writers were young, innocent, not the dangerous gang members that middle class New Yorkers feared were responsible for the defacements. They are multi-racial, black, white, Hispanic, mixed. They came out of their inner city neighborhoods via the subway, targeted the subway to "watch their names go by" and to carry their tags and their fame to the outer boroughs and beyond. In their lifetime, they would no doubt never be famous, never been known, always thought of as a statistic in some rich white writers sociological assessment of modern urban issues. But by putting their tags on a moving vehicle that will carry their names as far off as the northern Bronx, as far south as Sheephead's Bay, as far East as Jamaica Estates, they will be seen, their name will be known.
Jon Naar has given these artists expression, decades later, long after their names have been scrubbed from their surfaces, by showing these writers at work at the moment in history where they had seized the spotlight and forced us to recognize their existence. Like the Neolithic handprint that anthropologists found on an Australian cave wall, someone once spoke the words, "I am human. I was here. I am me. This is my name."