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Watching My Name Go By

by Mervyn Kurlansky

[This is in response to my review of The Birth of Graffiti by Jon Naar]

The Birth of Graffiti 155th Street

It was September 1972. Five British designers, me being one of them, had just formed the Pentagram design consultancy in London. One of our clients, Reuters, had sent me on an assignment to New York where I commissioned Jon Naar to take some photographs of Times Square where Reuter's news service featured. I also needed some photographs of pigeons and driving around New York, I was stuck by the sight of the new expression of Graffiti, spreading like some organic growth throughout the island. Jon explained that it had only recently made its debut in the city amongst great consternation by the public and the authorities, which were determined to eradicate it. It seemed to me that something was taking place that was of great social significance and I immediately saw the need to document it before it disappeared. I suggested the idea to Jon and invited him to join me in this venture. I returned to New York in January 1973 and for the next three weeks Jon and I toured the city recording the work and meeting and interviewing the kids behind it all.

I returned to London with some 3,6000 transparencies, where, with input from my partners, I edited the photographs, designed the book, called it Watching My Name Go By, after a comment by one of the graffiti artists, produced a full size dummy, and found a British publisher, Matthews Miller Dunbar. I agreed to share all rights in the book and any other material produced using any of the photographs with Jon Naar, and he in turn agreed to share all rights in the photographs with me. The book was taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where it attracted the attention of an American publisher, Larry Schiller of Alskog Publications, who bought the world wide rights (UK excepted) to publish the book. We discussed the need for an introduction by a well known writer on social issues and at the suggestion of the publisher, who had recently published the Marilyn Monroe book written by Norman Mailer, we agreed to commission Norman to write the introduction to, what was now, our book. We introduced Norman to the kids and so began his investigation.

Norman entitled his piece, The Faith Of Graffiti, after a comment by one of the kids he talked to, and the publisher decided to change our title for the book, to Norman's title, without our consent. He also changed the original cover image. My idea had been to use an image on the cover which featured some of the graffiti writers, and the content of the book to be their (and others' ) work. His alteration destroyed the rhythm of the book for me, especially as he repeated the cover image inside the book. Jon and I flew to LA to meet with Schiller and try to dissuade him from these changes but to no avail. He insisted that the book would not sell with Black Americans and Hispanics on the cover. He threatened that if we made trouble over it, he would simply pull out of our deal and send his own photographer to get the same pictures and publish the book without us.

Originally I chose for the cover an image showing some of the graffiti writers standing on the stairs in a subway station holding up pieces of paper with their tags written on them. Larry took them off the cover and placed them as the last image in the book. He then took another image that was already in the book and repeated it on the cover of the U.S publication.

He supplied 10,000 printed copies in flat sheet form, without the cover, for the British publisher to bind with our choice of cover. I would have preferred to use the image of the kids on the cover of the UK publication had I been able to remove it from inside the book but as this was no longer possible as it was already printed positioned inside the book, I opted for an image of a subway train which had not previously been used.

After much wrangling we agreed on a compromise, to call the book The Faith of Graffiti in the USA and Watching my Name Go By, in the UK. I think that The Faith of Graffiti is a great title - it just wasn't our book anymore and, in fact, many perceive the book as Norman Mailer's which naturally sticks in my throat, as the whole thing was my idea.

In hindsight, the mistake I made, naively out of generosity, was that I should have insisted on a subtitle which clearly stated that the book was conceived, edited and designed by Mervyn Kurlansky with photographs by Jon Naar and an introduction by Norman Mailer. Another idea we had, was to establish a fund out of the profits from the sale of the book, to enable some of the most talented of the graffiti artists to attend an art school but this was turned down by Schiller who said he was in publishing for the money and was not about to become a charity. I suppose he had a point. What I have learned from all this is how easily people become greedy and corrupt when they smell the potential for fame or money or success, and will claim ownership of that which is not rightfully theirs.

The British publication, with the original title, Watching My Name Go By, features the following statement and credits on the inside of the front cover:

The idea for this book was first conceived by Mervyn Kurlansky, partner in the design consultancy, Pentagram, on a brief visit to New York in September 1972. He was so impressed by the recent outbreak of graffiti on subway cars, buses, trucks and buildings that he returned to New York specifically to record this phenomenon. He invited photographer Jon Naar to join him and together they explored New York, talking to those responsible and photographing their work. Norman Mailer was then approached to contribute a text and this book is the result of their combined effort. Design and Art Direction by Mervyn Kurlansky, Pentagram. Photography by Jon Naar. Text by Norman Mailer. Photographs Copyright 1974 by John Naar and Mervyn Kurlansky. Text Copyright 1974 by Norman Mailer. Produced and published by Matthews Miller Dunbar Ltd.

We wish to acknowledge the Graffiti writers whose names are listed and the many others whom we have inadvertently omitted.

This was followed by a list of some 760 names

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