duncancumming home duncancumming.co.uk
home > articles > reviews

The Birth of Graffiti

The Birth of Graffiti cover By Jon Naar, with introduction by Sacha Jenkins
Prestel, 173 pp, £14.99

Reviewer: Duncan (March 2008)
The Birth of Graffiti 155th Street The Birth of Graffiti page spread

Some ancient history to begin. The first real book on graffiti, The Faith of Graffiti, was released in 1974. These days it's a collectors item and you're unlikely to get a copy very easily, or cheaply (I received mine as a birthday present). It was the result of the combined efforts of three men: designer Mervyn Kurlansky, novelist Norman Mailer (recently deceased), and photographer Jon Naar. It's also unlike any other graffiti book since. There are only about 40 photos in the whole book, a slim volume printed in a large format, somewhat bigger than A4. Mailer's text is written in an odd third-person narrative where he takes on the persona of 'Aesthetic Investigator' and delves into the then-emerging graffiti phenomenon.

Fast forward 30+ years, and we get the similarly-titled The Birth of Graffiti. It has pretty much all Naar's photos from the first book, along with about a hundred outtakes selected from the thousands of photos taken during his work on The Faith of Graffiti in 1973. There are introductions by Sacha Jenkins and Naar.

The book is the latest graffiti-related title from Prestel, and follows the same sort of format and quality as their previous release Graffiti NYC. In fact the quality of the photos is better than in The Faith of Graffiti, often showing the full picture where before it was tightly-cropped. Being printed in a smaller format also results in the pictures looking less grainy than when blown up to 21 inches wide in the original book.

The photos themselves, being at the nascent birth of this movement, are mostly of tags and a few throw-ups. Quite different from Subway Art which came a decade later, where styles had more or less evolved into graffiti as we still know it today. That's not the only difference between Naar's work and the likes of Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper and James Prigoff who came later. Naar was basically a professional photographer hired by Mervyn Kurlansky for two weeks work. Unlike the next generation, he didn't spend years documenting the scene and meeting the writers, and he seems to have had nothing much to do with it since 1974 until now.

From his introduction (entitled 'On Becoming a Graffiti Photographer') he tries to establish his credentials, noting earlier street art and similar items he'd photographed pre-1973. But as Sacha Jenkins notes in the introduction, "Naar knew nothing about the subculture." His photos reflect this; instead of the later style of straightforward documentation of a transient artform, he shows the bigger picture of the locations where it was taking place, and the people there.

So what do you really get here? At first glance, a lot of 34 year old tags and a handful of simple throw-ups. On the other hand, you've got a historical document. You'll probably never get your hands on The Faith of Graffiti, but instead you can have all the photos and more in a handy format, just without Norman Mailer's text. You've got the birth of the artform being invented before anyone really knew what it would become in just a few years. Naar, Mailer and Kurlansky had the prescience to be there at the start.

Buy "The Birth of Graffiti" from Amazon

If you're interested in writing something for the website, get in contact.