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On the death of graffiti photographer Jon Naar: is graffiti art or politics?

15th Street Platform with Writer, NYC. Jon Naar/Jon Naar Photography

On the death of graffiti photographer Jon Naar: is graffiti art or politics?

Graffiti practice has existed in various guises since prehistoric man. We can, for example, trace its origins to early cave paintings such as the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, painted during the Aurignacian period approximately 30,000 years ago.

But since the late 1960s, the explosion of urban graffiti, made famous by pioneering writers such as Cornbread and TAKI 183, has become a worldwide phenomenon. It exists in all facets of the public realm. As fast as this new movement of graffiti was being made, it was being documented by photographers such as Jon Naar, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper and Keith Baugh.

Naar passed away on 30 November 2017. The first time I met him was in 2011. I was in New York to deliver a paper on vernacular graffiti, and he invited me for dinner at his house in Trenton, New Jersey. He was 91 at the time, and spoke about graffiti, architecture, sustainability and art with great adoration and enthusiasm.

By the time we were eating casserole, we were discussing the various perceptions and agendas of graffiti, and he stated:

Graffiti for me has always been a political act first, and then art second; it is always a political act.

This resonated with me greatly, as at that time I was exploring French philosopher Henri Lefebvre‘s spatial triad in relation to graffiti practice. Lefebvre’s spatial triad offers three ways to consider space: the conceived, perceived and lived. I would define these moments of space as the spaces designed by architects and planners, how society imagines those spaces as places, and the routines and realities of everyday spatial practice.

Naar’s pioneering book with Norman Mailer, “The Faith Of Graffiti”, was published several years too early for writers of my generation who, dwelling outside the USA largely relied on “Subway Art” (1984) for inspiration.

In 2007, Naar’s book was again published, in large format as well as a smaller format entitled “The Birth Of Graffiti”. It also included a different essay explaining Naar’s cultural positioning of graffiti and its relationship to both aesthetic as well as sociopolitical contexts given that many of the areas he photographed were destitute and fraught with social problems.

What makes Naar’s work refreshing and arguably more important than other photographers of graffiti is the fact that he embraced this context in the picture frame. It always included street furniture, shop signs, distance and panorama – but most of all people.

Perceiving graffiti

Graffiti exists in galleries, streets, infrastructure, outside and inside buildings, on canvases, clothing and countless other accessories. It has continually reinvented itself and allowed itself to be reinvented. While some graffiti writers stay true to its illegal and spatio-political origins, others make art to sell.

Some do both, some artists indulge in “street art”, arguably with its origins in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Whether discussing Cape Town’s FAITH 47 or London’s KING ROBBO, the paradoxical nature of graffiti is something just to accept.

The arguments for and against illegal and legal work, graffiti in galleries, the validity of street art, bombing, tagging, or whether a practitioner is a graffiti writer or graffiti artist will always be made. But there is a deeper issue that needs to be discussed, and that is the public representation and perception of graffiti.

Broken window

Graffiti in the public realm has long suffered from its linkage to Wilson and Kelling’s “broken window” theory (1982). Within this theory, graffiti becomes a perfect visual signal of social disorder and crime. The notion of fear grows out of incivility; and incivility grows out of crime.

Fear is ultimately perpetuated as these visual signals of disorder thicken, and so the resulting perception is that graffiti is often to blame for increased fear and crime within society. Whilst this might be true when discussed in a vacuum, graffiti is at risk of becoming responsible for other acts of crime.

The BBC’s recent fly-on-the-wall documentary “Drugsland” follows Avon and Somerset Police as they tackle crack-cocaine crime in the UK city of Bristol. In between scenes of drug raids, the viewer is offered strong visuals of graffiti overlaid with moody and dark music. This is problematic, as the message through these representations subconsciously links graffiti to crack-cocaine. This could not be further from the truth, as often the message embedded within graffiti is positively celebratory, or anti-crime. Famous examples are Keith Haring’s “Crack is Wack” (1986) and “Baby Don’t Do It” (1984) by Kaos and Mace.

We must break out of this societal narrative. Graffiti will continue and we must accept that, but we cannot as a society continue the lackadaisical approach to why graffiti is made, or why the window is broken in the first place? Graffiti tells stories. It offers up as many questions as it does crimes.

The makers of graffiti – and all members of society – could be empowered to address the complexity of socially challenging spaces positively if graffiti was reframed and evaluated as social commentary. Perhaps it is time to return to what Naar believed; that graffiti is a political act. Maybe then we can embrace it as agent for social change.