The Birth of Graffiti

A Review by Ricardo Barros

I'm not so sure that graffiti writing ever actually went away in New York City, but the decades-long crackdown initiated in the 1970’s eventually removed much of it from the public's eye. City walls were cleaned, task forces hunted down the writers, and graffiti-written subway trains were not allowed out of their yards. This all had the effect of rendering the art form virtually invisible. Graffiti became something a tax-paying, registered voter could not easily encounter. The irony is, of course, that graffiti didn't really die or disappear. It responded to municipal suppression by sinking beneath the cultural radar. The original writers have since been joined by scores of disciples, and the shadows in which they hid can no longer contain their growing number. Try this: Google the word "graffiti". The 37.7 million references cited will confirm a widespread interest in the practice. Whether you know it yet or not, graffiti is experiencing a renaissance. And with this comes a renewed interest in graffiti's past.


A promotional video featuring images from Jon Naar's The Birth of Graffiti, Prestel, 2007

The Birth of Graffiti, a book by photographer Jon Naar, beautifully published by Prestel, will certainly satisfy current interest in the discipline’s roots. It offers us a visual tour of the urban landscape just as the urge to write cryptic signatures on public surfaces was first exploding among New York City’s youth. Graffiti was omnipresent in the early 1970s. It was on subway walls, subway trains, stop signs, sidewalks, the corner store, and even on rocks in Central Park, to name a few places. Graffiti may have been emblematic of urban blight back then, but we are fortunate to have these photographs now. This book is a remarkable trove of irreproducible images. It is a time capsule, allowing us to revisit thoughts and emotions contemporaneous to a time when the world was seemingly addressing different concerns.

When Jon Naar photographed New York City's graffiti between December 1972 and January 1973, America was experiencing turmoil on a national scale. The Vietnam War had not yet ended, Richard Nixon was about to be impeached, and the movie Super Fly still amplified the voice of Black Pride. Youths of all colors and stripes were rightfully distrustful of authority, but inner city youth in particular railed against a generalized personification of whomever was locally in charge. This enemy back then was The Man.

Many people, while they didn't expressly articulate it as such, saw America not as the land of opportunity but a land of capitalistic imbalance. Mostly poor men got drafted; those with greater means availed themselves to draft deferments or entered the service as officers, or they ducked into the National Guard. Job opportunities were rationed in accordance with race and social class. Inhabitants of the inner city were effectively imprisoned where they were born. Landlords dictated the menu of options available to tenants through rent pricing and, upon reaching a coerced agreement, the tenants faced additional restrictions in how they could live on borrowed property. It was OK for property owners to put up billboards marketing to their social captives, but it was not OK for the community members themselves to alter their public space. The Man owned the buildings and everything in between them.

Within this context one can easily find seeds for a social insurgency. First one, then another, and eventually many youths independently protested by putting their marks upon the wall. I'm not aware of a single graffiti writer who called this a political act back then, but every writer acted in a time and place that could not help but be influenced by a socially charged, political environment. They didn’t scrawl messages to influence public opinion; they wrote graffiti as a creative response to ubiquitous social repression. Each independent act of a writer putting up his or her tag, every declaration of the writer’s existence, every reclamation of public space, no matter how small, and denying its control to The Man, was, for them, as significant as the Boston Tea Party was to patriots of the American Revolution.

Do you like this article?  Pick up the Premiere issue of The Trenton Review!  Read the rest of this article and see more photographs from Jon Naar's The Birth of Graffiti!   

The Trenton Review is proud to promote the book THE BIRTH OF GRAFFITI by Jon Naar, published by Prestel in 2007 and reviewed by Ricardo Barros in the Fall 2009 issue of the Trenton Review.

Jon Naar, photographer and author of 12 books, lives in downtown Trenton, NJ.  On December 22, 2009, HarperCollins will publish the 35th Anniversary edition of Jon's groundbreaking book THE FAITH OF GRAFFITI which features text by Norman Mailer.

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