Published  17/12/2007

Book review: Archaeology of an Urban Desert

Archaeology of an Urban Desert

The birth of graffiti
London/New York/Munich: Prestel, 2007

Jon Naar is a British photographer who has been based in New York. In 1974 he joined up with the late Norman Mailer to produce The Faith of Graffiti (1974), which contained around forty of his photographs. This combined survey was immediately successful, and is now a rare collectors' item. At that time, Naar's pictures captured brilliantly the spirit of the times, from inside the closely woven infrastructure of New York City, opening the very arteries and veins of the urban complex. The environment not only includes the rail and subway tracks and sidings, but also the various buildings usually backing on to the track, the flaking but vibrant shop facades and kiosks, and Coney Island views. This new publication now includes for the first time the original pictures supplemented by over a hundred taken over the same brief period, mostly in colour. These photographs are invariably taken full frame and high resolution, achieving perfectly the colour and tone first sought by Naar.

Earlier this fall, the Australian author and critic Germaine Greer drew positive attention to the actual value of graffiti in London, and to the high quality of the work of this city's star graffiti artist, Banksy, a brilliant but fugitive 'writer' still unaccounted for and 'on the run'. As Greer said, 'what he does is jokey, wry, fundamentally civilised'. In fact Greer became an early connoisseur of graffiti, when thirty-five years ago her newly acquired and run down North Kensington house came with a graffito attached, which tipped her into the purchase. Her 'text' acquired said 'Boredom is counter-revolutionary' a sentiment which she could not have better expressed herself. But it went eventually. As Greer comments, 'whether at Lascaux 17,000 years ago, or in West Arnhem Land (Australia) 50,000 years ago, art began on a wall. If the sandblasters had been around in either place, we would have lost a precious inheritance'.

Thirty-five years ago just about takes us back to New York, 1973. In that same winter, this reviewer was himself in New York with Eduardo Paolozzi. Naar was in the graffiti 'war zone' and sadly we weren't. The work would have greatly intrigued Paolozzi, already then distancing himself from the blandishments of those who would lazily brand his own work as Pop Art. He would have found common cause with the New York graffiti artists, and affiliated too with the much deeper socio-economic relevance of their work. Naar's full-frame photographs capture the sharpness of formal imagery in the crisp winter sunlight often enhanced by the long shadows of the surrounding buildings backing on to the sidings. Mailer, for his part, recognised that across America big socio-economic changes were in the offing and expressed this in The Faith of Graffiti. The 'writings' all caught that mood, to the extent that Naar's documentation of the imagery is now historical, even archaeological in importance. Unfortunately, no curators in the main museums seem to have caught the art implications of such messages for the museums: the derelict buildings and their walls are almost all gone. The subway coaches (the old Redbird cars), the buses and vans are all gone. There was mayor Lindsay's furious scorched earth policy flaming around, and as Mailer himself had found when interviewing the graffiti writers such as 'Japan 1' and 'Cay 161' for the book (rather than Warhol), they valued the fame this gave them through exposure in the book itself. The work was real, to Mailer's pleasure and credit, and the 'writers' were for real, on the front line, not pasticheurs.

City authorities and real estate owners might not consider themselves fortunate that graffiti is by definition originally incised on the available surfaces, not sprayed on or painted upon. Pompeii and Rome had offered early examples of the art. But it was the advance of industrial technology that made the spray can accessible to all, as at any DIY store. Naar has observed the development of 'writing' at this key early stage, in New York, and has now at last brought forward his unpublished photographs to reveal the richness of the painted work, its spontaneous creativity, and its anthropological tribalism that ensured that the risks were worth taking, as a civilising development. All that was consolidated in the short space of winter 1973. As one who experienced this city that winter, it can be witnessed that Naar was afoot in the 'war zone', at just the right moment. The full-frame photos capture the sharpness of that formal range of imagery exposed in the sharp winter sunlight, between the long shadows.

Jon Naar's book here is very smartly ordered; for example, all the titles of the pictures are aggregated on a single page spread at the end of the book. To scan through their evocative titles is akin to reading an inspiring poetry. Likewise, the nicknames, or noms de plume of the artist 'writers' all occur in sequence together at the end, separately from the run of the illustrations themselves. For example, Tad, Taki, Tango, The Fly One, The Man, The Moons, The Old Sheik, T.N.T, Trease and Turok for the 'T's. The imagery rated by these writers showed a visual richness that gave an authenticity and cultural relevance to the work, fully captured by Naar. Corinne Robins, as art historian critic and poet, had written recently in her introduction to Jon Naar's book 'Getting the Picture' (2005) that 'Jon Naar's graffiti photographs to this day remain a revelation of the spirit of a particular time and place. To see beauty in the subways, to make a gorgeous book out of urban ugliness, a book where the subject matter and the photographer's angle of vision are one, has turned out to be a historic achievement'.

To single out any examples from such uniform high quality is an impossible act to justify. However, 'Tenement Building', listed under 'Freddy' as writer, offers an almost Quattrocento purity of vertical perspective and figures 'ambulante', uncropped clarity in that New York winter sunlight. By contrast, 'Bronx Plaza' by 'Jungle' shows how 'writing' embellishes the assumed monumentality of the steps and adjacent sculptural relief. This reveals the creative fraternisation of the 'writer' with the commissioned sculptor of the reliefs - no offence meant here. The wide expanse of 'Coney Boardwalk' depicted by Naar offers an escape from the constrictions of urban space. 'Skip' was here.

Time moves on. The 'writers' recorded by Naar must all by now be in their early fifties or late forties. This remarkable document will ensure that whatever their ultimate fate in the jungle wars of Manhattan/Brooklyn the brilliance of their 'writing' will survive for posterity and become even an inspiration to further generations now ranging into cyberspace.

Michael Spens

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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