Books in the MCL: Norman Mailer & Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti

In his notable essay from 1974 that is here turned into a book, titled ‘The Faith of Graffiti‘, Norman Mailer, an American writer, novelist, and journalist, embarks on an exploration of graffiti as a significant artistic and political expression. Right from the outset, Mailer establishes a captivating tone as he seamlessly interweaves the names of graffiti writers such as CAY 161, TAKI 183, and JUNIOR 161 with those of revered masters from various art movements throughout history, including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rothko, and Ellsworth Kelly. In doing so, Mailer bestows validation upon the work of graffiti writers and recognizes graffiti itself as a consequential art movement of the 20th Century.

While Mailer’s comparison drew criticism and ignited debates, particularly due to concerns about him legitimizing what some perceived as mere property damage, his unique writing style also faced scrutiny. Detractors argued that his outsider perspective may have imposed limitations on his ability to understand the subculture accurately and that his descriptions of graffiti were overly romanticized. Perhaps not surprisingly, the essay also sparked allegations surrounding issues of cultural appropriation.

Despite these critiques, ‘The Faith of Graffiti’ remains a thought-provoking and impactful piece of literature that delves into the intricate relationship between graffiti, art, and society. Mailer’s examination of graffiti as a form of artistic expression intertwined with political and social contexts provides readers with a compelling lens through which to view this dynamic art form.

In his 1974 review in The New York Times, John C. Lane said, “Jon Naar and Norman Mailer have produced a remarkable and beautiful book which captures in word and photograph the vitality and dedication of the young “writers” of the subway cars, those muralists who have turned their talent to graffiti… It is the photographs in this book that are most memorable.”

The Faith of Graffiti’ remains relevant because it documents a pivotal artistic movement that eventually would transform the urban landscape globally and influence subsequent generations of artists. It serves as a time capsule as well, capturing the spirit of creativity, rebellion, and self-expression that defined the graffiti culture of that era. From a photographic perspective, it is a visually captivating and historically significant book that offers a glimpse into a transformative moment in art history and may spark discussion, inviting readers to explore the multifaceted nature of graffiti culture – all the while encouraging a critical examination of its portrayal by people outside its original core of creators.

Text Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo Fotos Sebastian Kläbsch