BOOKS IN THE MCL:  SUBWAY ART. Martha Cooper & Henry Chalfant. 1984.

Martha Cooper was the first full-time photographer for the New York Times, capturing everyday situations on the streets of the metropolis for the daily newspaper since the mid-1970s. In 1979, while photographing children playing in the Bronx, she noticed a young boy with a sketchbook. It is HE3, a graffiti writer, who willingly lets her photograph him in front of one of his works. When he offers to introduce her to DONDI, a big name in the scene, she gained access to the graffiti world, which is rather closed off to the outside world.

In the months that followed, Cooper obtained an insight into the scene, met countless writers and captured hundreds of the colorfully painted subways on film. This is also how she gets to know Henry Chalfant, who also documents the works of the young artists as an outsider and has the best contacts in the scene. Unlike her colleague, who photographs the spray-painted pieces standing as frontally in relation to them as possible on the station platform, Martha Cooper tries to capture the trains in their urban context. Together they plan to compile the photographs of this unique phenomenon and publish them in a book: ART TRANSIT.

However, since no American publisher was willing to publish the book, it was not until 1982, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, that the two photographers found a publisher, Thames & Hudson, who took on the project. Two years later their work was published as SUBWAY ART and became the first illustrated book dedicated to the painted subways in New York. Together with the films Style Wars (1983), Wild Style! (1983) and Beat Street (1984), the book and thus graffiti reached an international audience for the first time.

Young people all over the world thus begin in the mid-1980s to create made-up names as Pieces after the New York model and to paint them on walls and trains.

SUBWAY ART is not only documentation, but also serves as an instruction and shapes the archetype of a graffiti piece to this day. Martha Cooper’s and Henry Chalfant’s book is considered a bible for writers worldwide.

text: Sascha Blasche  photos: Sebastian Kläbsch

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