Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Thirty years after its original release, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s collection of photos still offers a vibrant look at the origins of this art scene.
The spray-painted subway cars of 1970s and ‘80s New York City appeared symbolic of the city’s status as the blighted, crime-ridden center of the art world. But what seemed to be an “only in New York” phenomenon soon spread. One book from that era has remained a bible to graffiti writers around the world ever since.
Subway Art, first released in 1984, is the work of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, two photographers who moved to New York in the 1970s. Cooper, working on a photo project about kids playing on the street, stumbled her way into the city’s graffiti scene when a boy she photographed showed her a tag he sketched in a notebook. Through him, Cooper met other artists including DONDI, known today as one of the most influential graffiti writers.
Chalfant, meanwhile, was stitching together panoramas of tagged subway cars around the city. Hanging out on a “writer’s bench” at the 149th Street station in the Bronx, Chalfant met the creators behind elaborate tags; they let him know when a new piece was done. They also told him about another photographer, Cooper, who was photographing the same things.
After meeting in 1980, the two linked up to put together Subway Art. Cooper’s anthropological style of shooting and Chalfant’s zoomed-in panoramas make for a book that highlights not only the sheer talent of these artists, but also the surroundings that fostered them.
Re-released late last year with even more photographs, Subway Art takes on an entirely different meaning to new readers. These days, MTA rail cars are mostly tag-free thanks to a polyurethane coating that makes it hard for spray paint to stick and a fleet big enough to take vandalized cars out of commission. The social life around graffiti writing, meanwhile, has moved to the Internet.
Chalfant and Cooper’s photos were not an easy sell upon first publication. The duo recalls seeing few copies in bookstores, and not a single review of it. But word—and bootlegged copies—still traveled. The São Paulo street art duo Os Gêmeos told Cooper upon meeting her in 2006 that they had scored a photocopied, black-and-white version of the book as teenagers.
Today, graffiti writing appears in museum collections and is even used to market luxury housing. The art form has come a very long way since 1984. Subway Art is a reminder of how it all began.
Subway Art, $24.95 at Thames & Hudson