Books in the MCL: Spray Nation. 1980s NYC Graffiti Photographs. Martha Cooper 2022

A generous collection of newly unearthed photographs documenting New York’s golden graffiti age from one of the celebrated visual documentarians, Spray Nation expands the conversations discussing the so-called ‘birth of graffiti’ for five decades. With hundreds of pages of newly published photographs culled from the archives that first produced her book Subway Art with Henry Chalfant, the book features unseen pictures of tags, throw-ups, whole car pieces, graffiti writer portraits, and even a few celebrity shots from those halcyon days when graffiti was first being embraced by the gallery and nightlife scene in early 1980s New York. Along with graffiti historian Roger Gastman, Martha Cooper dug through her thousands of 35mm Kodachrome slides to reassess her collection of photographs.

Given how influential the graffiti scene became worldwide during the decades after this first explosion on New York’s subway trains, what they uncover here only confirms the foundational practices and styles of those first graffiti writers. These (usually) young aerosol and marker users painted trains illegally and secretly to claim visual territory in an often chaotic, busy city that appeared to overlook them. They sprayed to promote their names, claim territory, put forth new ideas for discussion, and ultimately impress their peers with stunts that proved their athleticism and prowess at evading danger.

“Martha’s photos have backed up graffiti writers’ tall tales more times than I can count,” writes Gastman in his introduction. “They’re like this crazy high school yearbook. As a result, Cooper is who every graffiti writer, fan, collector, and researcher wants to come and see.”

As the title implies, the practice of graffiti writing grew to cities across the country, and these new action shots of walls and painted subway cars have been selected and digitized to show the range of styles that would soon follow. A trained ethnographer and professional news photographer, Cooper again presents a city as it is, without unnecessary flourish or presumptive storytelling.

Testifying to the significance of the evolving graffiti scene and the role of Cooper’s drive to preserve this ephemerous world with a singular vision are essays by Roger Gastman, Steven P. Harrington, Miss Rosen, Jayson Edlin, and Brian Wallis.

“Martha took pictures of painted trains and b-boys because few bothered to at that time. Once people caught on, she considered her task completed,” writes graffiti writer and historian Jayson Edlin in his essay. “Subway graffiti gradually died, street art rising from its ashes. Disinterest, drugs, and AIDS decimated NYC’s cultural apex, its brightest stars perishing before their work hit the seven-figure mark – lives as ephemeral as our pieces on the train.”

Text: Steven P. Harrington & Jaime Rojo/ Fotos Eveline Wilson