by Norman Mailer
It Books, 2009, 128 pp., $35
More than two years after the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi inspired a wave of demonstrations and popular uprisings against despotic regimes across the Middle East, the successes and failures of the optimistically named Arab Spring remain matters of debate. But there’s no question about one thing: all the protests have left their mark on cities and towns across the region…literally.
Tyrants like to keep the streets clean of any reminder that something might be creeping out of control. But over the past two years buildings and barricades from Tunis to Manama have been defiantly daubed with graffiti. Reluctant to read the literal or figurative writing on the wall, authorities have been quick to whitewash or black out critical slogans and images. But in a graphic counterpart to the often violent confrontations playing out in the streets and squares, the protesters have painted more, and more quickly, than the authorities can efface or erase.
In Syria, graffiti sparked the revolt against Bashar al-Assad that has since become the region’s bloodiest and most intractable stalemate. It was the arrest and torture in the southern agricultural town of Deraa in March 2011 of a group of schoolboys that first prompted Syrians to take to the streets. The boys’ crime had been to paint on a wall a slogan: “As-shaab yoreed eskaat el-nizam” (“The people want to topple the regime”).
The force of that small act implied no real physical menace behind it. The malefactors were only 15 boys aged 12 to 15. What alarmed the regime was that the boys were copying something they had seen on television: graffiti slogans featured prominently in Syrian television reports of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The writing on the wall was starting to look like a universal language, or at least a language that defied the many dialects of Arabic.
It would be easy to overstate or oversimplify the importance of this episode in a manner akin to the wishful thinking that characterized much early Western (and some Arab) political commentary on the so-called Arab Spring. While it is abundantly clear that graffiti played a role in recent events, it will not be spray-painted slogans that bring down Assad. His most likely successors, too, seem something less than champions of free expression, on walls or anywhere else.
Then again, we shouldn’t be too cynical either. A young journalist wrote, “Street art is the ultimate peaceful challenge to the status quo. It spreads throughout the city, charming passersby, filling them with the energy to change and create.” This journalist is Egyptian and lives in Cairo. If she believes what she says, her message has already acquired a degree of truth simply through her saying it. Much the same goes for the conviction expressed by her compatriot, the street artist known as Ganzeer, who said, “Art is the only weapon we have left to deal with the military dictatorship.” Or for the assertion by the Cairo publisher Mohammed Hashem, “Graffiti has won us freedoms we had never dreamed of before. . . . It has been the strongest voice of the revolution.” Clearly, street art and graffiti have had a powerful inspirational, if not instrumental, role in the upheavals of the past two years.
That role has changed as events have developed. At first, as crowds faced down the forces of order on the streets, the painted slogans were mostly simple provocations, calls to action, acts of anonymous defiance, even a rudimentary means of communication at a time when the mass media were still firmly under state control (blocking access to the internet being a favored and obvious, if usually futile, early tactic of regimes trying to smother a rebellious populace). In Cairo there were sketchy portraits of Mubarak next to a single scrawled word, “Erhal” (leave).
More elaborate street art has followed these crude early scrawlings as the initial euphoria of revolt has given way to dissatisfaction with interim regimes and to anxiety about what will happen next. These murals, featuring not just slogans but often complex and highly worked imagery, recall key events and personalities of the uprisings, constructing in the process a shared historical narrative that might help to define the new nation struggling to emerge. Similar art, with a similar purpose, can be seen throughout Latin America, in Palestine, in southern Africa and in communities on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.
Walls in Tunis bear the stenciled face of Mohamed Bouazizi. In Cairo, a group of young women walk past a graphic depiction of the veiled female protester notoriously stripped and beaten by riot police. In Tripoli there are images of Qaddafi as a comic coward fleeing the wrath of the people he had tyrannized and as a sniveling cartoon rat. The accompanying slogans are exhortations, statements of shared values, expressions of faith. In Cairo, “It’s just the beginning” and “Hold your head high, you are Egyptian.” In Tripoli, in English, “Finally we are free”, and in elegant calligraphic Arabic, “We are not going back to control. We have liberated ourselves. We have liberated our country.” (Well, “we” and a few NATO aircraft.)
At the most basic level, this work is by its nature fleeting. The nervous rulers (new and old) of most of these countries, still “frightened by paint brushes and pens” (in the words of some Arabic graffiti in Cairo), whitewash the walls, albeit not quite as fast as the graffiti artists can repaint them. But in other ways, of course, the graffiti is not transient at all. However briefly it stays on the wall, by the time it has disappeared in these cybernetically connected times it has been photographed, posted online, circulated and discussed around the world. There are websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, gallery exhibitions—all dedicated to the street art of the Arab Spring. There’s even, in the case of the Egyptian graffiti, a 700-page book (also accessible in digital form). This is the street art of the information superhighway.
t all seems a long way from Washington Heights, where forty years ago, in a cramped bedroom on 161st Street in Manhattan, Norman Mailer interviewed two of the most prolific teenaged producers of the graffiti that had taken over the New York public transit system and seemed set to take over the city as a whole. Mailer’s subsequent essay was first published in Esquire in May 1974 and then in book form, with vivid documentary photographs by Jon Naar. It is sometimes known as Watching my name go by, but Mailer’s preferred, more eloquent title was The Faith of Graffiti. A handsome new book edition appeared in 2009.
The essay shows Mailer at his best and worst. Vain, pretentious, overwritten, at times obscure or absurd, it nonetheless set the terms in which graffiti has been written about ever since. This is all the more remarkable because the graffiti Mailer was writing about was by later standards fairly unsophisticated (this was basically a bunch of young kids writing their names on things), and because the assumption, by Mailer and by those he interviewed, was that graffiti subculture already had its best years behind it and was on the way out. There’s an elegiac tone to the essay that may seem surprising now, when graffiti no longer dominates the New York subway but has otherwise pretty much taken over the world.
That tone shouldn’t really surprise us. Regret and nostalgia run through much sympathetic writing about graffiti from the 1970s to the present. This is perhaps inevitable, in view of the contradictions within the medium itself and the ways it is understood by its more articulate devotees.
Graffiti practitioners themselves have from the beginning extended a wary welcome to the imaginative expository attention of writers and intellectuals such as Mailer, and they have relished the way their handiwork was stylishly immortalized (long before the internet) by photographers like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, whose shots of 1970s and 1980s New York subway art became defining images for what was soon a burgeoning global scene. But while street artists may have enjoyed their notoriety or fame (fame of some kind being more or less what they wanted when they started to write their names all over town), they have usually, in the manner of sub-cultures everywhere, simultaneously lamented that their activities are now no longer exclusive, unknown and underground. Somebody, it’s never clear who, sold them out by going above board.
Mailer’s regrets are more complicated. Where many, perhaps most, New Yorkers of the early 1970s shared Mayor Lindsay’s view of graffiti as “a dirty shame”, an incomprehensible slap in the face for well-intentioned civic efforts to improve the city for everyone, Mailer hailed it as transgressive in a thoroughly positive way, a vibrant challenge by underprivileged Hispanic youths to an established social order that excluded them. Some of the same debate took place in Philadelphia, where the first graffiti pioneer of all, Cornbread, did his “work.”
Mailer was not alone on the New York scene either. Richard Goldstein, whose influential article “The Graffiti Hit Parade” in New York magazine predated Mailer’s effort by several months, saw in graffiti “the first teenage street culture since the Fifties.” The pop artist Claes Oldenburg welcomed the way the painted subway trains cut through the urban grey and gloom, brightening the city “like a bouquet from Latin America.”
What Mailer’s essay makes clear, however, not least to anyone rereading it forty years on, is how much conservatism there is in this apparently radical view. Socially progressive, Mailer clearly regretted, even feared, some of the social effects of progress, particularly in urban planning. Paradoxically, or perhaps just naively, this was an important element in his enthusiasm for graffiti.
It’s not necessary to subscribe wholeheartedly to Jane Jacobs’s belief that everyone should live in Greenwich Village to see that Jacobs was right about the folly of “segregating New York into economically independent islands, with endless, dreadful consequences”, and of constructing brutalist housing projects that lack the transitional spaces (otherwise known as neighborhood streets) that have traditionally mediated between public and private realms. Jacobs, of course, would have recognized graffiti for what it turned out to be: a significant contributory factor in the urban decline and destruction to which it was to some extent a response. Discussing urban graffiti late in her life with a Toronto police department officer who was running a program to clean up the city, she said she was “distressed by it. . . . [I]t is a symptom of disorder and disrespect to buildings. I don’t have a romantic view of it now, but I know that some people do.”
Mailer certainly did. He saw graffiti as a colorful act of resistance to the planning policies he disliked and as a radical attempt to (literally) re-inscribe the personal into the sterile public spaces from which the planners had banished it. And if he failed to foresee that it was a step on the way not just to a vibrant hip-hop scene but to gang culture, and ultimately to urban decline on a scale previously unimaginable in the developed world, it was perhaps because his aesthetics got the better of his common sense. It often did, alas. Aesthetically, Mailer was a conservative—a romantic to be precise—and it set him at odds with modernism in art as well as in urban design. Graffiti might almost have been made just for him to write about.
Mailer returns more than once in The Faith of Graffiti to Robert Rauschenberg’s notorious Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. As the title explains, the young Rauschenberg acquired a work by Willem de Kooning, arguably the leading American artist of the time, and painstakingly erased it, presenting the result as a new work of his own. The whole process, for Mailer, highlights “the ambiguity of meaning in the Twentieth Century; the whole hollow in the heart of faith.” He finds the work profoundly unsettling, as it was meant by both artists to be (Rauschenberg made it, or unmade it, with de Kooning’s approval).
Mailer laments that, “An aesthetic artefact has been converted into a sociological artifact—it is not the painting which intrigues us now but the ironies and lividities of art fashion which made the transaction possible in the first place.” This is undoubtedly true, though I think it’s possible to see the work in less gloomy terms and even to find it quite affecting. Mailer, however, apparently detecting little but sterile intellectualism in the contemporary avant garde, seems nostalgic for a more rugged, romantic authenticity in art. For better or worse, he finds it in “the unheard echo of graffiti”, a radically new, and profoundly old-fashioned art.
For Mailer graffiti is art as direct self-expression, at once spontaneous and skilled, somehow primeval in its concern with individual identity. It is an art of vibrant color and sinuous line, with its own stylistic rules and categories and, for all its directness, its own aesthetic mysteries. It is an art, too, of collective social purpose, and an act of personal political resistance to the ugly monotony of modernism’s coercive aesthetic.
That, more or less pretentiously expressed, remains the standard positive critical account of graffiti, forty years on. Similar arguments are endlessly rehearsed in books, articles and films, in online chat rooms and discussion groups, and in departments of cultural studies and art history, where graffiti and street art are now studied and taught.
More troubling (if also more lucrative) for graffiti’s practitioners, self-proclaimed rebels all, is the parallel discussion that goes on in catalogues and reviews of exhibitions, in commercial galleries and in public museums. Street art has come in from the cold, with all four paws, it seems.
n the decade following Mailer’s essay, the young Brooklyn-born artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who was to die aged 27 in 1988, moved from spray-painting graffiti around New York, using the street name Samo, to producing canvases that fused the aesthetics and politics of graffiti with the neo-expressionist idiom then dominant in serious contemporary art. The neo-expressionist artists of the 1980s were reacting, much as Mailer had, against what they saw as the intellectual aridity of minimalism and conceptualism. In doing so, they made work that aimed to be sturdily expressive and direct, but often ended up being merely bombastic instead. However, if they were in some degree bogus, Basquiat had the integrity they lacked, the authenticity that Mailer had sought.
Basquiat’s best work was—and still is—forceful, accomplished and idiosyncratic and primitive, but never naive. It was strikingly successful in both artistic and commercial terms. He was the real deal, with “deal” being the operative word. His stature in the art world has grown steadily since his early death. Last year, for the second year running, he was the most sought-after artist in the contemporary auction market, with total sales in the region of $100 million and individual paintings selling for $16 million or more.
Spurred on by the success of Basquiat and his contemporaries such as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, a subsequent generation of artists, dealers and curators took graffiti off the streets and into the galleries as part of the artistic mainstream. In turn, something that looks, and is consciously meant to look, much more like art has moved from the galleries onto the streets.
This work, by the likes of the enigmatic British artist known only as Banksy, or the 61-year old Frenchman Xavier Prou (Blek le Rat), not to mention countless imitators, proclaims itself “street art” rather than graffiti. More concerned with images than with words, its favored medium is the stencil, its stylistic idiom is broadly that of advertising and Pop, and its intellectual stock-in-trade is the more or less amusing visual pun. Context is usually all. Carefully controlled diffusion through merchandising and limited edition prints has allowed the practitioners of this kind of work to turn themselves into global commercial brands while still laying claim to the authenticity and integrity of artistic urban guerrillas. Mailer might have approved, but so might a master showman and ace art-market manipulator such as Damien Hirst.
The upshot of the two-way traffic between art and graffiti has been the spread of a common visual street language across the globe. Graffiti today looks much the same everywhere. This is in part down to the technical strengths and limitations of the means most commonly employed. The spray can and the marker pen lend themselves particularly well to the ubiquitous elaborate calligraphy of spikes and curves. The widespread use of stencils produces a similar uniformity in more ambitious street art, this time enhanced by the tendency of the movement’s stars to move around, raising their profiles by making works in prominent locations around the world.
You don’t have to share Mailer’s rapturous view of graffiti’s primeval origins to view many of these developments without much enthusiasm. In November 2011, in the journal Foreign Affairs, the critic Blake Gopnik wrote a thoughtful short piece titled “Revolution in a Can.” A rather more considered variant of the standard elegy for a lost golden age of graffiti, it noted the way the movement became a victim of its own success, how its deliberate pursuit of the very qualities that had first led intellectuals such as Mailer to praise it had soon proved its undoing. “The worst moment in the history of graffiti”, Gopnik wrote,
came during what was also its heyday, in the early 1980s in New York. That was when mainstream culture adopted graffiti as something called “art.” Graffiti came to be about “personal style”, “aesthetic innovation”, and “artistic self-expression”; about looking good and catching the eye; about stylistic influence and the creation of a self-conscious visual tradition.
That analysis is shrewd. Where other critics or practitioners might waste time complaining of the (inevitable) social and political sell-out that comes with (sought-after) success, Gopnik’s insight is to see how that process has translated into specifically formal and stylistic terms, with pernicious effect. It’s why so much graffiti just looks pointless, and so much street art seems so smug.
ut perhaps not everywhere. In the street art of the Arab Spring, for instance, what Mailer called the “faith of graffiti” may be restored. Western art, Gopnik says, in an unconscious echo of Mailer, is nowadays mostly a game:
We have to look at societies that are truly in crisis to be reminded that images—even images we have sometimes counted as art—can be used for much more than game-playing. In a strange reversal, the closer graffiti comes to being an empty visual commodity in the West, the better it serves the needs of the rest of the world’s peoples, who eagerly adopt it to speak about their most pressing concerns.
The point is well made, though Gopnik’s additional suggestion that the most elaborate images from Egypt or Libya today “look very much like 1980s paint jobs on New York subway cars” is only half true. Some of graffiti’s force in those contexts comes from the sudden irruption of alien art forms into societies which had been so closely controlled. But much of the interest of the phenomenon in this case comes from the way the stylistic languages of Western graffiti and global stenciled street art are being fused with elements of the popular political art of Latin America and elsewhere, as well as, uniquely, with more local visual idioms based on Arabic calligraphy and decoration.
The other thing about Gopnik’s analysis, of course, is that it will always rely on someone deciding which societies are “truly in crisis” and which are not. Consider, for instance, the graffiti and street art on the concrete panel sections of the barrier separating Israel and Palestine. There is graffiti on the Palestinian side that has stylistic and indeed motivational similarities with graffiti more recently seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Here are statements of political allegiance (such as support for Hamas), criticism of Israel and of the barrier itself, drawings of Palestinian flags and renderings of local landmarks and symbols. One’s view of it all is likely to depend on one’s position on (or in) the conflict of which it is a part.
That dilemma is brought into sharper focus by the presence on the barrier of another, more conspicuous and generally more sophisticated kind of street art. The barrier has become the focus for what even some of its participants concede is conflict tourism. Banksy has described it as “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers” and himself painted nine images on the Palestinian side which in turn attract tourists and more graffiti writers from around the world. The images, as with all Banksy’s work, play illusionistic games with the context in which they appear: a ladder runs up the wall, a little girl floats upwards clutching a bunch of balloons, a window opens on a landscape beyond. The meaning (profoundly thought-provoking or insufferably lazy and glib) may be mostly in the eye of the beholder. The artist has recorded and publicized an exchange he had with an elderly Palestinian resident, who said: “You paint the wall. You make it look beautiful.” Thanking the old man for what he took as a compliment, Banksy was told: “We don’t want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall. Go home.”
Others are even less grateful. In February, a Banksy that had been removed from a street wall in North London turned up at auction in Florida, with an estimate of between $500,000 and $700,000. At the last minute it was withdrawn, mainly because the artist declines to authenticate his work if it is taken out of context but also because the elected representatives of the North London community were protesting fiercely, demanding their tourist attraction back. In situ on its original London wall, it had been covered by a Perspex screen, presumably to protect it from graffiti. Is that irony, or simply commercialized madness?
The questions raised by that little episode may not be so very far away from some of those raised in Mailer’s mind by Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning, as quoted above: “An aesthetic artefact has been converted into a sociological artifact—it is not the painting which intrigues us now but the ironies and lividities of art fashion which made the transaction possible in the first place.”
The “ironies and lividities” of art fashion are no less evident in the recent history of a more famous concrete barrier that predated the one on the West Bank. At the beginning of March, protesters halted a plan to demolish one of the last surviving sections of the Berlin Wall, to make way for (of all things) a luxury apartment block. The section of wall was a much-visited open-air gallery, covered in street art, with vivid murals by artists from around the world, depicting key scenes from the Cold War. But while the Cold War was actually going on, this particular section of wall was entirely within the Communist DDR (the Wall was often two walls, with a broad, deadly no-man’s land of mines and trip wires in between). It had therefore always been quite bare and unadorned; the painting has all been done since November 1989.
Not that there was no graffiti in East Germany before the Wall came down. A researcher at the University of Leipzig announced a year ago that he had catalogued 3,500 examples and was keen to hear from anyone who might have been involved in making them. To put that figure into perspective, just take a look at any of those photographs of New York subway cars or station entrances from the 1970s. You could probably count almost 3,500 individual “pieces” and “tags” within a dozen frames.
Graffiti in the DDR was mostly suppressed in the way that most other manifestations of dissent were suppressed there too, with the brute force and all-embracing intelligence apparatus of the state (which wasn’t above just banning the sale of spraypaint; they banned ideas and whole human lives as well). When graffiti did break out, as it occasionally did within the DDR’s fairly insignificant (and thoroughly state-infiltrated) hip hop and punk scenes, it was pretty basic and pretty direct. There were hastily scrawled slogans: “Defend yourselves”, “Hit back”, “Turn the State into cucumber salad” (that one sounds better in German). And the perpetrators often ended up behind bars.
On many sections of the western side of the Wall, however, the conflict tourists and global graffiti artists were in full flow. So much so that in 1986 five young people originally from Weimar but deported to the West for anti-social activities decided they had had enough. Like Banksy’s elderly Palestinian, they felt that the multicolored slogans of protest had merely beautified the wall and concealed its monstrous physicality beneath a decorative veneer. They wanted to reassert the Wall’s status as a barrier, and they decided to do it by painting a single straight white line along the whole of its length, over the top of the graffiti.
Ignoring the objections of onlookers and, in one case, the screams of a graffiti artist horrified at seeing her newly painted expression of radical solidarity defaced, they carried on until the East German border guards, perhaps judging the project all too successful, rushed out from a checkpoint, arrested one of the painters, took him back into the DDR, and left him in a Stasi prison for a year and a half. Irony? Lividity? Faith? Farce? There are times when the writing on the wall is hard to read. At least no one put Rauschenberg in jail.