January 17, 2020

From Gerald R. Lucas

The Faith of Graffiti Notes

Norman Mailer links graffiti with his conception of the hip that he developed in his seminal essay The White Negro. For Mailer, the Hipster is one that challenges the status quo, often in violent, unpredictable, and creative ways. The Hipster is a subversive figuration—not morally good, but necessary to challenge authoritarian views that could lead to greater, state-sanctioned atrocities, like the holocaust.

1. “Life is an image”

Mailer, as the A-I, accepts the assignment to write about graffiti, interviews several retired graffiti artists, and discovers the importance of the “name.”

  • Rather than take on the “chore” of journalism, NM assumes the persona of the “Aesthetic Investigator” (A-I)[1]
  • Graffiti artists, like CAY 161, see themselves in the lineage of the great chapel painters of the Renaissance[2]
    • Something spiritual about it: CAY 161 “has the power of his own belief.”
  • “Life is an image”[3]
    • The artist taps into something spiritual—tempting (or pleasing?) the gods[4]
  • “The name is the faith of graffiti”[5]
    • This refers to NM’s essay,[6] and something more profound
    • the name is a “hit,” linking graffiti to death[7]
      • Implicit here is the subversive act, or challenge to authority and the possible consequences of “your name . . . over their name”[8]
      • The “peril of the position” is important: getting your name in dangerous places—both literally and metaphorically (i.e., over authority)[9]
  • Poverty and crime are integral to the process?[10]
    • friendship, too?[11]

2. “Commit an artistic act”

With photographer Jon Naar, the A-I interviews more graffiti artists. He describes the “existential stations of the criminal act”[12]: the process of “inventing” the paint, the clandestine travel, the fear that accompanies the act, and the verdant “profusion and harmony” that combatted the “high-rise horrors” with “wavelets of ego.”[13] Now, the authorities have cracked-down on graffiti, and it seems as if the “impulse to cover the walled tombs of technology had been broken.”[14]

  • “There was always art in a criminal act.”[15]
    • Graffiti artists lived through the crime to “commit an artistic act”
      • Very suggestive of WN
    • Art itself, NM suggests, is a subversive act
  • “Collective therapy of grace exhibited under pressure”[14]
    • combats the “assault on the psyche” of modern life[16]
  • Graffiti is described as a jungle to “save the sensuous flesh”[17] from the homogeny of modern life
  • “Comic strips come to life”[18]
    • subway cars and metal were “their natural canvas”[19]
    • suggests that this was the best place to cause the most challenge and provide the most fame for the graffiti artist

3. “Art begot art”

The A-I visits MOMA for further insight (as the section is so short, we can infer he received little). He suggests that graffiti is a “alluvial delta” of the river or art,[20] and he then considers the artistic influences graffiti artists. He lands on a kind of artistic telepathy that he links to plants: “art begot art” by way of some “psychic sea.”[21]

4. “Plastic above, dynamite below”

A-I visits John Lindsay, the out-going mayor of NYC. In 1969, Mailer had run for mayor of NYC against Lindsay, thus his mentions of the campaign and what-if musings. Lindsay offers the official line on graffiti: it was “a dirty shame” perpetrated by “insecure cowards.”[22] Mailer contrasts the Federalist style of Gracie Mansion (an “economy of balance”[23]) and “the ugliest architecture in the history of New York”[24] that had been constructed under Lindsay with the perception that graffiti might inspire further criminality.

The A-I notes that the official reaction to graffiti “seemed personal”—that it exhibited a fury beyond what it deserved.[25] The subway graffiti, “defacement,” was “profoundly depressing,” for it seems to have tarnished Lindsay’s reputation and ruined his presidential bid.[26] While Mailer is critical of the Lindsay Administration’s treatment of graffiti, he does finally show sympathy, wondering what he would have done had he been mayor. He concludes that graffiti “as a political phenomenon had small hope for life.”[27]

The interesting part, here, is the reason why: the tourist’s uninformed view. He contrasts bathroom scribblings with graffiti, suggesting that the tourist cannot see the difference. For them, graffiti speaks of the shit just beneath the surface, promoting fear in those who see it. Graffiti was criminal, and those who held a paint can might also hold a knife or a gun. However, the true horror seems to be the “fear of the insane graffiti writer in the self.”[28] That all that separated them from madness and horror was picking up a paint can.

The city’s reaction, then, was to counter this potential horror in the public with the “new architecture” that offered a “deadening agent to the balance of the growing violence underneath.”[28]

5. “Art is not peace, but war”

The A-I, now become Mailer again (?) for his conclusion, muses on the state of art. It is commodity (“stuff with which to stuff the hole”[29]), something displayed in a museum,[30] a sociological experiment,[31] the artist’s body,[32] ego construction (“a clearing in the forest of the psyche free of dread”[33]), defiance of the gods,[34] the last vestiges of “Middle-class passion.”

Graffiti is perhaps the most germane expression of “the possible end of civilization”: it “speaks of a new civilization where barbarism is stirring at the roots.”[35] For Mailer, it seems to be a reaction against the deadening effect of bad architecture, plastic, and the “oncoming universal machine” of the “mass-man without identity.”[36] This expression of the slum and the ghetto shows “the courage to display your name,” but also belies a “more primeval sense of existence” that promotes discomfort and, perhaps, signals an apocalypse.[37]

  1. Mailer 1982, p. 134.
  2. Mailer 1982, ¶2.
  3. Mailer 1982, End of ¶2.
  4. Mailer 1982, ¶22, p. 140.
  5. Mailer 1982, ¶19, p. 139.
  6. Mailer 1982, ¶s 6–8.
  7. Mailer 1982, p. 136.
  8. Mailer 1982, ¶9.
  9. Mailer 1982, ¶23, p. 138.
  10. Mailer 1982, pp. 136–37.
  11. Mailer 1982, ¶12, p. 138.
  12. Mailer 1982, p. 140.
  13. Mailer 1982, p. 143.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Mailer 1982, p. 144.
  15. Mailer 1982, p. 141.
  16. Mailer 1982, ¶30, pp. 143–44.
  17. Mailer 1982, ¶24, p. 143.
  18. Mailer 1982, ¶30, p. 143.
  19. Mailer 1982, ¶25, p. 141.
  20. Mailer 1982, ¶31, p. 145.
  21. Mailer 1982, ¶34, p. 146.
  22. Mailer 1982, pp. 151, 149.
  23. Mailer 1982, ¶36, p. 147.
  24. Mailer 1982, ¶38, p. 149.
  25. Mailer 1982, p. 149.
  26. Mailer 1982, p. 150.
  27. Mailer 1982, p. 152.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Mailer 1982, p. 151.
  29. Mailer 1982, p. 153.
  30. Mailer 1982, ¶62, p. 154.
  31. Mailer 1982, p. 155.
  32. Mailer 1982, pp. 155–56.
  33. Mailer 1982, ¶66, p. 156.
  34. Mailer 1982, ¶67, p. 156.
  35. Mailer 1982, ¶69, p. 157.
  36. Mailer 1982, p. 157.
  37. Mailer 1982, p. 158.
  • Austin, Joe (2001). Taking the Train. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Birzin, Edward (2019). "The Faith of Graffiti: Elevating Graffiti to 'Art'". Subway Art (Dissertation). Philosophie und Geisteswissenschaften. Retrieved 2020-01-17.
  • Cooper, Martha; Chalfant, Henry (1984). Subway Art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Kohl, Herbert (1972). Golden Boy As Anthony Cool. New York: Dial Press.
  • Mailer, Norman (1982) [1974]. "The Faith of Graffiti". Pieces and Pontifications. Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 134–158.
  • — (1992) [1959]. "The White Negro". Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
  • Thompson, Margo (2009). American Graffiti. New York: Parkstone International.