Roughly forty years ago a bunch of kids wrote their names wherever they could in New York City, but particularly in subway stations and on subway trains. Among them, Mike 171 and Snake. About the same time an adult photographer, Jon Naar, was commissioned to photograph those names and an adult writer, Norman Mailer, was commissioned to write about them. They approached their respective tasks dragging their worlds in tow. Mailer was at the top of his game, with reams of prose and a Pulitzer behind him. Naar was on the way up. And the kids, they were down, but not out.
None of them knew what they were doing, not in a larger historical sense. The kids were staking claims on their lives in the public space of New York City, a city that cared less about them than about others. Mailer and Naar? They’d been given commissions and were fulfilling them.
With style. All of them with style and commitment. The result, a book: The Faith of Graffiti. The book became a monument and graffiti itself went round the world. Forty years later we look back and see what became of them; we see them as seeds.
And so, forty years later, three of those people gathered with others to discuss then and now. The discussion was convened by the Wooster Collective, represented by Sara and Marc Schiller (his father commissioned Mailer to write the graffiti essay). Naar, Mike 171, and Snake were there; Mailer was otherwise disengaged. They were joined by a sociologist, Dr. James Dickinson, and a designer, Massimo Vignelli, a world-renowned designer who’d designed the signage for the New York subway system. When Snake and Mike 171 wrote their names on those walls, they were going up against Vignelli. The discussion was held in the Nineth Avenue offices of Knoll, a design firm that has commissioned work from both Naar and Vignelli.
The discussion was wonderful. Someone should have video taped it. I should have taken notes. But someone didn’t and neither did I. So all I can do is say that it was wonderful and add a word or two to that.
Mike 171 told us his story. Twelve years old when his father died, on the streets, acting out, getting up, white boy in a many-colored neighborhood. In particular, he told us the story of Cay 161, who’d given Mailer the name of the book when he told him “the name is the faith of graffiti.” It was a tale of the streets, of cops and a chase, of an injury. But I don’t remember it. Mike, of course, does. And we all heard him tell it, fresh as yesterday.
When asked what he thought about graffiti, about the names around the subway signage he’d designed, Vignelli took a breath, drew back a bit, explained that graffiti was vandalism, and that the social fabric was very fragile. Yes, we hear you, fragile. And then he pointed out that, of course, the fabric was already torn. Hence, graffiti.
What he liked were the tags, the handstyles, the spontaneous gestures. What he didn’t so much like were the elaborate and premeditated and elaborated pieces. Mike 171 followed him there, it was pure, innocent [yes! pure innocent vandalism] and then came the money and the galleries and it wasn’t the same.
But it is.
That wasn’t the whole discussion. It wasn’t just Massimo Vignelli, famed Italian-born designer now living and working in NYC, and Mike 171, uptown kid turned firefighter who made it out from under the rubble of the 2nd tower on 9/11. It wasn’t just them. Everyone had a say – Naar, the Schillers, Snake, Dickenson – but they were the hub, the axis, around which it all turned.
You shoulda’ been there.
And, yes, graffiti’s gone commercial. There’s an elite group of writers who make cash-money for their designs. But graffiti’s also circled the globe. It’s the only form of abstract art that’s found a mass audience. That’s worth thinking about.
As you think about it, think about Mike 171 and Snake getting up forty years ago, Naar photographing them, Mailer writing it all, telling the world why it’s important. Those worlds converging, conjoining, and spinning off their separate ways.
The kids are still at it. And the cops still chase them. But with a difference. Some of those cops were once writers themselves.
Here’s some handstyles (aka tags) from Jersey City. When you look at them, imagine yourself sweeping them out, feel it in your shoulder and arm. In not much more than the time it takes to sign your name, with care, that’s how long it takes a writer to transform a wall with an elegant handstyle.