BSA Exclusive Announcement and interview with the director and the star of
Documentary by Selina Miles
BSA is proud to announce the world premiere of Selina Miles’ new full-length documentary on the life and career of New York photographer Martha Cooper at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Separated by four decades and an ocean or two, the Australian film director and the American photographer – each of whom has garnered serious respect in the myriad subcultures of art-in-the-streets with phenomenal storytelling abilities and an innate sense of timing – together land a remarkable film capturing life as a street-shooter, making the multi-chaptered story sing.
It is a fascinating visual sweep that illustrates the unusually gratifying paths that this ever-curious ethnologist charts on the streets (and below them) worldwide since receiving her first camera from her father at age three. The film is a well illustrated collage of a remarkable 70 plus year span showcasing Coopers’ 6th sense for people, urban culture, and burgeoning subculture. Viewers get to see the huge variety of interests she has investigated with amiable warmth and academic rigor – from the Peace Corps in Thailand to tattoos in Japan to graffiti train writing in New York to the daily lives of people in her native Baltimore.
With ample interviews and vintage video footage never seen before, “MARTHA: A Picture Story” follows Ms. Cooper across continents into the streets, through tunnels and over rooftops to provide illustrative background contexts for her decisions, her driving motivations, and her pure determination to succeed as a professional photographer – despite man-made and societal adversity.
We’ve been very fortunate to see this diamond of a
documentary up close, and we can say that MARTHA is legitimate crowd-pleaser.
spoke with Ms. Cooper and Ms. Miles for this auspicious announcement day about
the new movie:
BSA: Your personal and professional history has often been about overcoming challenges and pushing aside barriers. Is there one new challenge you have gone beyond to participate fully in a documentary about you? Martha Cooper: Well like most photographers, I’m more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it especially when speaking. I can’t say I’ve gotten good about overcoming being filmed, but I tried hard to give good footage.
BSA: One of the challenges of being a doc filmmaker is the number of hats you have to wear – sometimes perhaps feeling like you have to do everything yourself. What did you discover about your preferred role/s on a film? Selina Miles: Making a documentary is certainly a dynamic job and requires a mix of technical, social and creative skills. Learning from a photojournalist with 50 years experience such as Martha has been a wonderful experience. I started my career in video making by mucking around with friends making graffiti videos and shooting street art festivals, and the DIY spirit of both of these art forms really gave me an advantage on this project.
Not all directors know how to shoot or how to edit, but thanks to these early experiences I do know a little about all of these disciplines. Being able to just grab a camera and shoot, or to edit my own little concept videos was very handy in getting the project off the ground. That being said, being able to employ an amazing editor like Simon Njoo and having the mentorship of producers like Jennifer Peedom has also been a dream come true and really helped take this film to the next level.
BSA: With the new documentary many people will learn about a more dimensional photographer than the one they most frequently associate with the name Martha Cooper. Why is this important? Martha Cooper: I’m often called a graffiti, street art, or hip hop photographer but I don’t put myself into those categories. I would like people to understand that the common denominator in my choice of subjects is art in everyday life. I’m always looking for examples of how people are creative in their everyday lives. Graffiti is just one of many different examples.
BSA: Is there a special approach or formula that one tries to follow when making a story like this for a more general audience. Selina Miles: I think that the interesting thing about this story, in particular, is that it explores a subculture that is so misunderstood by so many people. Everybody has seen graffiti and has an idea of what it is, but I still think that few people really understand why it exists and where it came from. There’s so many tropes and ideas about graffiti and those who practice it that are just plain wrong or oversimplify a very complex idea. It’s been an enjoyable and interesting challenge for me to unpack the facts and rules of this subculture as I see them, and step them out in a way that somebody completely new to the culture can understand and appreciate Martha’s story.
BSA: Your photos capture a time and a moment and a technique of creation, but also often the more atmospheric and cultural energy of the street. What has drawn you time and again to capture this to share? Your own curiosity? Martha Cooper: Not exactly. As you know, I like looking for things and collecting them. Photography is a challenging quest and taking a good photo is the reward. The nature of what I’m questing for can change according to time and place but in general, the world is more interesting to me if I have a camera. The possibility of photographing something makes me look at my surroundings with a keener eye than I would without a camera.
BSA: Martha stood on the shoulders of feminists before her, yet blazed some paths that were very much her own – frequently without support. What is one lesson a younger person may take from Martha Cooper when they watch this movie? Selina Miles: Marty often says that people today don’t understand what it took to survive as a freelancer in earlier decades, especially as a woman and I completely agree. It’s a common thing that you hear but it’s very true, we are lucky these days to live in a world so connected and relatively accepting of all kinds of races, ages and sexes. That being said, there’s always going to be a frontier, and I hope that young people watching Martha’s story will be inspired to push beyond that frontier in their own way, and not be held back by anybody’s expectations of who or what they should be. And do it all the time with a smile and a sense of humor!
MARTHA: A Picture Story.
Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival,
which takes place from April 24 – May 5th. Public tickets will go on sale on
Tuesday March 26 at 11am ET. Tickets are extremely limited and we recommend
purchasing tickets early.
“Graffiti ain’t something you do, it’s something you live,” says the text above a wildly lettered REVS piece in a 1996 photo taken in El Paso. If there is a New York graffiti/Street Art icon that you would identify with a credo like this, he’s definitely one. Self-secreted away from the limelight and distrustful of many of the characters that are on the graffiti/Street Art “scene” today, REVS is nearly a New York folk hero, despite appearing to be completely firm in his anti-establishment, anti-commercial views – rooted in punk and hardcore music and those values that helped form his sometimes shape-shifting character since the the 1980s.
Today it is a rare moment for BSA to publish an exclusive interview with an anonymous and articulate thinking man and writer whose practice we consider to be an important lynchpin between graffiti and what would later be called “Street Art.” The scale of his massive roller tags with sometimes writing partner COST, the series of personal ‘diary’ entries that number into the 200s in underground tunnels, the replication and repetition of tags and messages through new print methods, the move to iron sculpture soldiered to the streetscape – each of these moves broke a mold and expanded the definition of art on the streets in some way.
New York author and respected Hardcore music and graffiti documentarian Freddy Alva is publishing the second edition of his book “Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore”this month, where he gives you the full account of personally meeting with and interviewing the elusive writer/artist/musician – a generous portion of which we bring to you here today. Mr. Alva tells us what it was like to meet with REVS and speaks of the illuminating and wide-ranging REVs interview that gives details and perspective behind the lore in his evolution with aesthetic street expression in a way that is rarely heard. Our thanks to both of these folks for sharing their stories with BSA readers.
Intro from Freddy Alva
When I first started to write my ‘Urban Styles Graffiti In NYHC’ book in 2016; the first person on my list that I wanted to interview was REVS. I’d been a big fan of his output since the late 80’s and I knew he came from a Punk/Hardcore background, which made him an ideal subject to highlight the synthesis and crossover of these vital NYC subcultures that went on to have such a worldwide cultural impact. I managed to get a sit-down with him through mutual acquaintances & traveled deep into South Brooklyn to pitch my book. He was a bit distant at first but warmed up as he found out I used to book shows at a place one of his bands played at in the early 90’s.
As I laid out my vision for the book and the writers that I was planning on interviewing plus images that I wanted to highlight; he patiently listened and towards the end politely declined to be included as he preferred to keep his story underground and maybe I didn’t quite correctly explain what the final product would look like but he did agree for a couple of songs from his early 80’s band Adam 12 to be included on a compilation I was planning on releasing simultaneously with the book. I left Brooklyn a bit dejected but respected his decision & figured that was it.
Flash forward to when the book came out in early 2018 and I
got in touch with him again to return those Adam 12 songs that I used &
also to give a him a copy of the book to see what he thought of it. He called
me up the very next day saying how much he loved it & if there was any
chance he could still be included. Fortunately, the book quickly sold out and I
was planning on expanding the 2nd edition, as there was a chapter
that was left off the first time around, plus correcting typos and fixing some
of the photos so to add a REVS interview would make this the definitive
Like I stated in my intro to his section; people that follow
him might not be as aware of how much his experience in being a Punk Rocker has
really impacted all of his art in such a profound fashion. It’s unheard of
these days, in what’s called the street art world, to have an artist of such
magnitude and influence like REVS eschew all and any attempts to commercialize
He will never sell you one of his works, there won’t ever be
a gallery exhibition, he will not do any commissions and forget about any
merchandise/marketing related to him. One need not look any further than the
defiant, middle finger, fuck you to the system attitude espoused by American
Hardcore bands like the Dead Kennedy’s or the Do It Yourself ethics of
subversive English Punks Crass; all resonating in his work throughout the
years. I seriously consider him one of the last great NYC artists from the 20th
century that got his start and influence from two rebellious subcultures that
are near & dear to my heart. I feel fortunate to fill in some missing
pieces, giving a more nuanced picture of who he is and why his art comes out
the way it does.
~ Freddy Alva
What was your next tagging name? The very first name I had was SATIRE and I probably got that from the Monty Python show on TV. I didn’t know what it meant, had no fucking clue, but I wrote it on an abandoned house with this kid that wrote RED and lived on my block
At what point did you start writing REVLON? That started in 1983. After writing SIRO I might have been ME2 for a few weeks, then it was KIRK, took some bullshit tags in the village with that, nothing particularly good. I was hanging out with this guy D-ROCK, he was in a band called Cooker, known before as Weed or also Sacro 13; all the same band. He used to write and we would go on missions and also go to HC shows together all the time. He had a dope dancing style, kind of like John Watson. We were hanging out in my hallway one day and I went to the bathroom, saw this Revlon shampoo bottle while taking a piss and picked it up.
What can I tell you? I was young and stupid, I had so much hatred in me. I hated every fucking thing. I stuck with that for a while because I developed a good one line tag. It’s a horrible tag I know but I love animals and hate animal testing so this I again one of those contrary things that I’m against what the name stands for, like Adam 12. Another tag of mine is SHIESTA and once again I’m the complete opposite of that because I don’t shyster with people. I don’t like shysters, there is always this duality that goes with me.
Did you do any burners on trains with the REVLON name or get down with any crews? Yeah, we used to go to the 4th Avenue layups, the M yard, RR layups in the city. We also went to the ‘Dead Yard’ in Brooklyn on 39th street. Me and my partner NB were hitting tunnels pretty extensively in 1983. I never joined any crews.
At what point did the REVLON name transition into REVS? That happened in 1987. We were painting at King Kong’s cave in Brooklyn where the N train goes to Coney Island. I was doing a wall with LAW and EROS from Staten Island, plus my partner at the time, KAB, and NIKE from DESTINY crew. I did a REVS because REVLON is a such a horrible stupid fucking name. I abbreviated it and put a Z at the end because I was sick of REVLON. By 1990 I was a nowhere guy, like that Reagan Youth song, “Go Nowhere”, that was me. I just threw the rule book out the door and didn’t give a flying fuck about making straight lines in graffiti. I just wanted to destroy like Johnny Lydon and I never looked back because I feel that I’m in my groove.
It’s interesting this transition happened when graffiti in NYC changed after the train era and new techniques, like wheat paste posters, in street bombing became more prevalent. You are associated with that, tell me about it. I was walking down Houston near Mercer one day and saw some stupid poster for a Tom Cruise movie and I was like; ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna do my own thing’. I figured it out, got wheat paste and started going out solo, putting my posters up in the Village. This is in 1990 or maybe 1989 because I had my first girlfriend in 1988. She was Porto Rock and wasn’t hearing about any of this graffiti shit. I couldn’t be a bum, had to dress nice and take her to dance clubs like 10-18. That was fun, going to places like The Palladium, got to do what you got to do sometimes! She actually ended up running away with a sailor and moved to Hawaii. I was like; ‘Fuck this, fuck everything’ once again. I started doing these crazy sloppy rollers with the wheat paste because everything at that point in graffiti was so meticulous in 1990. Perfect straight lines, right angles… I was like; ‘nah, I hate everything’.
People must have have thought you were putting up movie posters when you went out. How did you hook up with COST? I would do low spots like doorways and one day I saw COST hitting all the backs of the ‘Don’t Walk’ signs on the street and I knew him since like 1985. He was putting these 8 ½ x 11 inch ‘Hello My Name Is COST’ posters and I was doing 11 x 17 inch ‘Who Is REVS’ posters. I ran into the dude from Videograf and told him to give COST my number.
Where did the idea to do rollers come from? I think LAW and EROS used bucket paint for their piece at King Kong’s cave but they did it as fill-in material. The concept of “John Loves Mary’ written on the side of a bridge with house paint also influenced me but I took it on steroids. I’m a white dude that likes tools, got to use tools, it’s part of my nature. I can physically do some stuff but I’ll always settle for doing something smarter not harder. I got an extension pole, like 24 feet long, for the roller me and COST did. We did our first roller on a parking lot by Duane St, right on the roof. It was a brown roller on a tan wall.
COST is a straight up graffiti dude, he’s a bomber, that’s what he knows how to do. Don’t ask him to draw anything. He can probably do a piece but he’s great at throw-ups and tags. He’s not into abstract work, but when we did that roller a lightbulb went off. We blew up the whole spot, no one could go over us. It was a sloppy roller but to his credit, he’s a very neat guy and meticulous. He cares about perception, wants to get feedback. I don’t care, just don’t go over me, say whatever you want. He was like; ‘Yo Rev, we got to make these things neat, make them clean and everything’. I was like ok; I can go with the flow so when we started doing that’s when it really took off. We started hitting everywhere and these things look pretty good, almost semi-pro lettering, kind of like a stencil.
I know spray cans are easy to rack, but how did you get all these gallons of paint and wheat paste? Wheat paste was cheap. I always worked, been working since I was 11 years old so I had money for buying wheat paste. We found on Reade St. an old paint store that had like a gazillion DOT (Department Of Transportation) yellow standard buckets and I bought every single one for like a dollar a piece. This is the DOT yellow that I used before meeting COST. I ran Houston and Broadway with a DOT yellow piece. We also used whatever we found in the garbage, didn’t care it was oil based, we are not painting someone’s house but just blasting as much as possible. We found Photo Backdrop paper in Soho and started doing what we called street paintings on them, then gluing those up. They were 4 x 6 feet tall. We started doing street paintings where you paint the doorway and then take some shoe dye, put purple in the dye, then do my character. COST was doing his stick figures thing and we ventured out to the outer boroughs as well.
I imagine you guys started garnering attention as far as this is something, it’s not like traditional graffiti from the 70s/80s. What did other writers think of it? Writers didn’t like it. COST came up with the idea of getting a toll free phone number and then got his grandmother to record some foul language messages, insulting people. People were like; ‘What is this shit? That ain’t Graffiti!’ When dudes saw one of our rollers outside of, like Tower Records, or in Soho, they’d be off balance not knowing what to think. All their shit in the bottom didn’t mean anything anymore.
It’s ironic because traditional art theory people would look at this as some kind of performance art and graffiti writers would say what is this? They would say what is this toy shit? How come you’re not using spray paint? Regular people would call up and ask what is this about. It was mysterious but we were just two graffiti guys.
I was tracing the origins of the whole ‘Street Art” moniker and arguably; a lot of it can be traced back to what you guys were doing then Oh yeah it can. Street art has been around for a while but they didn’t really call it that, like the dude that put the shadows up everywhere. Then it was the ‘Kill Your TV’ guy. We started calling it street art and now it’s a bad word, at least amongst graffiti writers. It’s not a bad word for the people making money off it. I don’t call it graffiti anymore but “Greed-Fitti.” Once you throw money into something it has a way of making things go weird. All these dudes are selling things because there’s no real graffiti anymore. They took away the trains, buses, handball courts, the parks. Guys play with the tunnels now, RD and SEN 4 have the fire hydrants but we’ve got virtually nothing. Maybe some overpass by the freight trains. All of us still have the itch and being grown men now, we could do a good job. Everyone has a family with mouths to feed so they’re selling everything and calling it graffiti but it’s only graffiti when it’s up.
When did the rollers and wheat pasting era come to an end for you? Me and COST would argue a lot. We’d have these crazy discussions because we were together so much and have way different philosophies on life. I had to put my foot down otherwise he would have printed t-shirts to sell in Macy’s or something like that. One day we were wheat pasting and it ended up with us saying ‘Fuck You’ to one another. We went our separate ways but cops were trailing him because he was putting up a lot of stickers. Whenever we’d do a roller, he’d bring cans and do throw-ups. I didn’t want to do that because I don’t like spray paint anyway, but love tagging.
Is that when you started your series in the tunnels? Yeah, any motherfucker can write on a piece of paper but graffiti needs balls. The best graffiti guys have balls and talent, that’s dudes like ZEPHYR, SEEN, BAN 2. Some guys can get up but don’t have the talent. The tunnel thing was a case of I don’t give a flying fuck, I’m going to do whatever I want to do, don’t care who sees it. It’s not in book form, just made that shit up as I went along. I can’t spell. I was going with bucket paint and a ladder all painted black, clothes were black, pole was black. I used the best quality paint I could get my hands on and did 235 of these series. I didn’t get my groove on.
At what point did your steel sculptures come about? I don’t call them sculptures, more like metal pieces. DIVA used to call them weld-ups. I come from the working class so I build stuff. The first weld-up I did was in 1990 and it was a cage that I installed in Soho with railroad spikes and some epoxy on the bottom. It ran for a couple of months and then I did another one by the cube on St. Marks. It was an oil can that was for the Gulf war in 1991. Me and CZ, who I used to write with, humped that thing from my third floor apartment on the Lower East Side.
I started to get more into welding
and even when I was hanging with COST I would tell him to get a book to get the
concept of welding. He was like, ‘Nah REV, it’s not the right time.’ He doesn’t
come from the working class, has a different background. I got down with my
union and started getting better at welding, practice in anything will make you
better. I got balls and you combine that with being good at something; this is
the shit I’m into. I love getting into steel with a grinder and a torch. It’s
so easy to get a rechargeable grinder now but they didn’t have them back then
and now everyone is forty years old. Fifteen year olds ain’t fucking with that
but grown men know a little bit about tools. You can lose your shit once you
weld something. They’ll cut the fence down and go for the easiest part of your
piece, just take it down. That’s where I’m at, trying to device ways to make it
hard to take down and they’re looking for ways to stop me.
I remember at the time
you and COST were doing stickers and the 12” cover cover seemed an extension of
that as the cover looks like one giant REVS sticker
I can see why you say that but the
cover wasn’t a sticker, it just looks like one. That’s the difference between
me and COST. The 12” was a personal thing to me not some kind of mass media
campaign. I didn’t give a shit about becoming anybody. That’s the great thing
about the Adam 12 guys, none of us wanted to become anybody, that’s why I like
those guys. Other dudes like the Greed-fitti guys always want to become
somebody, they want to be the next Andy Warhol, Keith Haring or Basquiat.
That’s the problem because the
Greed-Fitti guys don’t come from punk. They don’t come from ‘Fuck you, stay the
fuck away from me’. I’m not left wing, I’m not right wing, just stay the fuck
away. That’s the punk I know and grew up on and when things started changing in
1984, it was disheartening. The machismo, why have violence against your own
people? As Jello (Biafra) says; ‘Thrash a bank if you have the balls’. Why fuck
with your own kind, back then everyone got along except for maybe there was a
hippie or two that got beat up at CBGB’s.
Here graffiti and street art intersects with the world of publishing, specifically with books and zines and related obscure and/or scholarly publications known to relatively few. The list of publishers participating in this genre has steadily grown in the last few years to about 50 here; heavily Eurocentric at this point from countries like Netherlands, Russia, Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, the US and others.
Previously hosted in Barcelona and Berlin, Unlock is coalescing around a growing interest in defining these movements from historical, artistic, and anthropological vantage points; documenting and even codifying an unruly canon of expression through discovery, sharing information, and teaching one another. Toward that end it also hosts talks, panels, and screenings – this weekend included speakers like Jens Besser, Suse Hansen, Hugo Kaagman, Carlo McCormick, and Diana Ozon,
Among the self-publishing authors represented at the fair this year are Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan, who have been operating a Graff Zine distribution / publishing house called Cut In The Fence. Mr. Void share’s with us today images of his new work, straight from the D.I.Y. / punk / cargo jumping scene that is always inter-marbled with graffiti and autonomous art making in the US, where he operates. Today we’re pleased to present a great interview with Mr. Void and Javier Abarca, the founder of Unlock, and who also is an artist, researcher, and educator.
Adam Void:Javier, in your 12+ years as a researcher and educator of graffiti and street art, what brought you to founding the Unlock Book Fair & the Tag Conference? Javier Abarca: There is a whole scene of independent publishers working with graffiti and related fields an there was no meeting space for it. The idea immediately caught on, which showed there was a need for it. We also use the fair platform to advance the research on neglected but fascinating topics within the field. Last year we focused on hobo graffiti, this year we are delving into punk graffiti. We gather and display rare books on the subject, program talks and screenings about it and publish a companion book with obscure documentation.
Adam Void:How do you see the Unlock Book Fair differing from other zine fairs or celebrations of graffiti & street art? Javier Abarca: Unlock is much like other book fairs, but it is focused on a particular field. It has little to do with other events related to graffiti and street art, which tend to focus on the production of commissioned artworks. Our job is independent research and documentation of furtive public art, mostly in the form of books and zines, but also screenings, talks, performances, etc.
Adam Void: This year’s showcase is focused on “Punk & Graffiti”, what are the core connected elements between these two cultures? Javier Abarca: The core thread connecting punk and graffiti is of course the DIY ethics. Today graffiti has turned, to a great extent, into an act of consumption, but it used to be all about do-it-yourself. DIY is the defining quality of punk, of graffiti and of many other independent cultures.
Adam Void:Can you expand on this some? How do punk and traditional graffiti cultures exhibit the Do-It-Yourself ethos? What is the change you have seen in graffiti as of recent times? Javier Abarca: Punk’s approach to creating music and graphic communication is of course quintessential DIY. And graffiti used to be that as well, kids had to find ways to hack the elements on hand –spraycans, markers, inks, the subway system– to create a fantastically visible city-wide graphic communications game starting from zero resources.
It is the specialized media –fanzines, then the internet– and the specialized market –with custom-made tools and materials of every kind– which have largely transformed graffiti from DIY to an act of consumption. People do not need to go out and seek the graffiti throughout the city to get inspired when a whole world of graphic references is just a few clicks away. And there is no more need to hack and customize tools –after learning how to do it from a mentor– when any specialized tool you can imagine is readily available and can be bought online.
Adam Void:Most of the publications in the showcase are centered on punk & graffiti history. What do you see as the future for this element of graffiti? Javier Abarca: Punk graffiti is mostly a thing of the past. The focus of the two “Punk Graffiti Archives” books we have published for the fair are the punk-originated tagging scenes that thrived in Amsterdam and Madrid in the late 70’s and 80’s with barely any knowledge of what was happening in NYC. These are largely ignored cultural treasures. Both cultures disappeared when the NY tradition of graffiti took over European youth through the 80’s. Punks may still write on walls, but graffiti as a culture is dominated globally by the NY tradition.
Adam Void:Unlock has exhibitors from all over Europe (19 countries), as well as Japan & the US. What are the main similarities and differences in the publications exhibited across this wide sampling? Javier Abarca: Each publication is a unique, fascinating world. But most publishers work from a similarly independent, even DIY position, even if they are based in different continents. This means the possibilities and limitations they face tend to be similar, which can translate into their approaches and results.
Adam Void:Are there other continents, countries, or parts of the world that you would like to get involved with the Unlock Book Fair and the TAG Conference? If so, how should they get in touch for next year? Javier Abarca: Both the Tag Conference and the Unlock Book Fair are meetups of the international global scenes of graffiti research and graffiti publishing. They could take place anywhere. People can get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through our Facebook and Instagram accounts @unlockfair and @thetagconference. We are in conversation with people from a number of cities in Europe and America who have expressed their interest in hosting the events.
Adam Void:Will you share an anecdote from the three-year history of the Unlock Book Fair that best exemplifies the spirit of the event? Javier Abarca: That would be the cantina. A central feature of the fair is the cantina serving complimentary, communal meals to publishers, speakers and staff. It is run by Unlock team member Akim, the Berliner legend of graffiti, street art and underground mischief, whose cooking abilities are well known in the scene. One of the main goals of the yearly Unlock Book Fair is to be a meetup of the publishing scene, and the cantina is its social heart.
Apart from this, the hilarious and fascinating readings and performances by team member Dumar NovYork –the legendary NYC bomber– are probably the moments that best portray the spirit of the Unlock Book Fair: knowledgeable, but just as fun.
Adam Void:What have you seen at this year’s fair that brings you excitement about the current state of graffiti publishing? Javier Abarca: The graffiti publishing scene is growing stronger and more interesting. It would be fair to say the Unlock Book Fair is playing a key role in this, in Europe in particular. A number of publishers have mentioned how this yearly meeting has become a motivation to put out more and better work, and how they leave the fair inspired by the contact with so many books and publishers. People are coming from as far as Moscow, Montreal, New York, Sydney, São Paulo or Tokyo to present their books, to talk, or simply to attend the fair and the Tag Conference.
Adam Void:What is next for you in your personal exploration in the dusty corners of graffiti culture? Javier Abarca: Next year’s Tag Conference will again create space for the the study of barely known forms of name writing. There is a list of obscure topics we want to explore in coming installments of the Unlock Book Fair. And I am working on a new groundbreaking international project that will create more opportunities for shedding light on overlooked topics which deserve more exposure among specialized audiences. Stay tuned!
French New Yorker and Street Artist WK Interact has just finished a new gig on a massive wall in Japan and he is about to help make some noise about it, so to speak. The Japanese band Noisemaker has a substantive following for their nu metal sound recalling the glossy punk stylings of 1990s and bands like Massive Attack, Green Day, and Rage Against the Machine and WK has created work to help them promote their new mini-album and tour kickoff next month.
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
The 12 meter wall in Shibuya features WK’s signature black and white urban military police-state nomenclature with an attractive female figure bossing in the foreground while holding a vintage recording device familiar to security and law enforcement. The Bands name is splashed in blood red behind her.
It took three days and a night to complete and WK tells us he had a very good time with the bands and the fans. Given that WK’s work on the street has nearly often contained elements of blurring chaotically chopped action, you smile when he tells you “the band was jumping on a trampoline in motion near the wall for their album cover.”
WK and the boys in the band celebrating the finished wall on social media.
BSA: What does the model’s pose and clothing signify to you?
WK Interact: The model is supposed to be one their fans who goes to many different concerts. She has a recording device that dates back to 1980 called a NAGRA. Many people these days carry their own listening device on their SMART phone. The idea is that she’s recording and transmitting to many other people. She is in her own world and listening and recording events is a passion for her – like buying clothes or surfing or traveling.
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
BSA: How is this wall significant to people in Japanese culture?
WK Interact: This specific place will be destroyed in the next two months and new construction will take over. It’s located four blocks from the Shibuya station and it is in the heart of a district with many different cool bars and shops. Many Japanese are sad to see spots like this vanish.
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
BSA: How would you describe the scene on the street in Shibuya?
WK Interact: The last time I visited Japan was 17 years ago and at that time I did an amazing opening at PARCO Museum. At the time JAPAN was the most advanced in terms of street wear and a prime environment for street art and graffiti. Tokyo has changed terribly as you almost see nothing in terms of expression from the street. None is visible. All the small little stores have vanished, the economy is not as good, and most of the big brands have taken over.
WK Interact likes to capture the severe men in uniform wherever he goes. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
WK Interact. Noisemaker. Shibuya, Japan. (photo courtesy of the artist)
The Director Invites You to Participate in the New Documentary
The rising star film director who has captured and woven riveting narratives of artists and graffiti virtuosos like Melbourne’s Sofles and the ultimate train-jumping outlaws 1UP Crew from Berlin – verifiably raising their respective games and profiles in the process – Brisbane’s Selina Miles has been tackling a graffiti/Street Art juggernaut right before our eyes; a full scale movie-length documentary on famed New York photographer Martha Cooper.
We knew that these two talented and powerful personalities would compliment each other stunningly and that’s why we encouraged them two years ago to do a doc. A short term one was the original plan. But the two hit it off so well and when you are looking at a five decade career like Ms. Cooper’s and you have the dogged determination to do her story justice, Ms. Miles tells us that even an hour and a half film feels like its just getting started.
Now “Martha” the movie is at a unique juncture in the project and YOU may be able to participate; Selina and the team are looking for any original footage you may want to show them – and it may be used in the documentary.
In an exclusive interview director Selina Miles today shares with Martha Cooper fans some unseen images from making the movie. She also gives insights into what it has been like making the biggest movie ever produced about the famed photographer.
Brooklyn Street Art:What gave you the idea to do a documentary about Marty? Selina Miles: As with most of us interested in graffiti, I knew of Marty’s book Subway Art from a young age. We first met at ONO’U Tahiti Graffiti Festival in 2014, and I was immediately taken with her approachable, passionate and vibrant character. In 2015, I had been working on a series called “Portrait of an Artist,” an anthology of 10 minute documentaries profiling artists, and a good friend asked me “Who’s next?.” Martha was an obvious choice.
We both returned to Tahiti the following year for the same festival. Seated around a dinner table with a group of artists, I casually asked “When do you think you’ll be in New York next?” she replied “I’m not sure, why?” I ended up asking her right on the spot if I could make a film about her, in front of the whole group. It felt very much like awkwardly asking out a prom date. Luckily she said yes.
BSA:Is it true that at the start of the project you were thinking of doing a short film? Selina Miles: The following February, I had just finished directing my biggest TV commercial yet, and wanted to the use bigger-than-usual pay check to do an ambitious project. I booked myself a 2 week trip to New York, as well as a ticket for Marcus Autelli, an amazing cinematographer from London. Our mission was a 10 minute piece.
Like so many fans of Martha’s work, I discovered her through the graffiti subculture. I did my best to research before the trip. I scoured Youtube and Vimeo for videos and interviews with Marty, flicked through Subway Art, pored over Street Play, re-watched Style Wars and thought I had done a pretty good job.
When I arrived in New York, Marty met me at her train station, and together we walked to her studio. She gave me a key and pointed me in the direction of her archives. Large folders lined the shelves. I still remember the first time reading those labels, hand-drawn in Marty’s signature authoritative, all-caps handwriting. “Windsurfing.” “Korea.” “Tunisia.” “Israel.” Each one full to the brim with boxes of Kodachrome mounted slides, stamped and dated.
The first person Martha suggested I interview was her good friend Susan, who flew down from her home in Maine to speak to me. It wasn’t until a few days before the interview that I learned that “Marty’s friend Susan” was actually Susan Welchman, photo editor of the New York Post and of National Geographic Magazine for 35 years. I began to learn of Martha’s incredible, rich photographic career, too often obscured behind the monumental popular reverence for her graffiti work.
I realized with a combination of terror and excitement that I was facing much more than a 10 minute graffiti video. That this was the story of a photographer who had shaped entire generations of a worldwide subculture. A woman whose camera had witnessed historical events from the 1960s until now, whose story was deeply entangled with that of New York City, whose work had touched so many lives across boundaries of time and place and culture. And most importantly, a story that was relatively unknown, absolutely begging to be told, and that Martha had put her faith in me to tell that story.
It was then that I realized that 10 minutes wasn’t going to cut it.
BSA: Is there anything call “a typical day” when you are following Marty in her travels? Selina Miles: There is never a boring moment when you’re with Martha. What she has can’t even be described as work ethic, because she doesn’t see photography as work. It is just who she is, and there is nothing else. She will go anywhere, any time, to any extreme to do the projects she wants to do.
That being said, there are certain consistencies in her days. Any time she is presented with a window of downtime of more than 3.5 seconds, she is playing Pokemon Go. When it comes to food, Marty frequents exactly 2 restaurants in New York, both 4 blocks or less from her apartment. In total she has about 4 dishes on rotation, supplemented on particularly busy days by Lunchables, ready-made snack packs of deli meats and Oreos.
It is well documented that many successful entrepreneurs and geniuses keep rigid routines or wear the same clothes every day as a way to save precious cognitive resources for what they really love to do. Marty is no exception. My best tip for anyone lucky enough to share a lunch with her – you have about 30 seconds to decide on your order before her patience runs out.
Marty’s life is chaos wrapped in deeply ingrained habit, on a bed of compulsive, obsessive collecting and photo-taking. An ideal combination for a documentary subject.
BSA:You have unprecedented access like no one ever before to the archives of 50 years. It must to have felt overwhelming sometimes. Selina Miles: Most of my career has focused on making short films where the objective is creating something out of nothing. This project is the opposite. The real challenge is to distill 50 years, 17 published books, hundreds of travel destinations and more than an estimated half a million images into a singular, watchable 90 minutes. In this case, making a good film is as much about what you choose to leave out as what you include.
My team and I have collected archive from every major medium, from Super 8 film, to VHS, to DV tapes, to our own 4K video. We have searched high and low over the 19 months working on this project, and there hasn’t been a week that we don’t discover some essential snippet of the story. Friends and colleagues of Marty have sent in material from South Africa, Prague and Germany. Her ex husband’s basement held over 6000 feet of Super 8 home movies, unseen since the ‘80s.
This constant digging and discovery is anxiety inducing, chasing leads that never end, having nightmares of dusty tapes sitting in a basement somewhere that could unlock all the answers if only I could find them. On the flip side, the elation that comes when you find that perfect piece makes it all worth it.
BSA: Were you able to speak to individuals whom you considered to be close to Martha personally or professionally? Selina Miles: Out of every subject we approached, all but one agreed, the exception being a prominent anti-graffiti policymaker from New York City during the early ‘80s.
I interviewed in 6 cities and had material translated in 4 languages. I spoke to friends and family, peers, cultural commentators, graffiti writers. Each contributor was more varied and vibrant than the last. After the interview, when I would thank each contributor for their time, they would often respond with the same phrase, jumping out at me like a mantra – “Anything for Martha.” It became quite ridiculous how often I heard this exact phrase coming from everyone from kids at the skate park in Baltimore to curators at major New York museums. Access was not an issue on this project.
BSA:Can you share a special insight that you gained one day with her? Selina Miles: I have been inspired in so many ways by this project, but I would say the most significant lessons I took away from the Marty Cooper approach to life would be to take risks, embrace failure, never grow up, and choose your own path in life. Although it takes place in very fantastical world full of weird and wonderful characters, Marty’s story is full of extremely universal, relatable human experiences, failures and triumphs. I hope that in watching the film, each viewer can find their own insights and take home lessons within her story.
BSA:You live In Australia and Martha lives in Manhattan. How do you make a feature film documentary when you have to travel such long distances? Selina Miles: Firstly I am very fortunate to have built a freelance career that allows me to work when and where I choose. I can definitely encourage anybody thinking of making that leap to go for it. Not having a boss that you need to ask for time off makes it much easier. Secondly, being Australian you get really used to working weird time zones and traveling long distances. Modern aviation is a wonderful thing! Get on a plane, fall asleep for 14 hours, wake up and you’re in a different country! How cool is that!
Our world is so connected now, and filmmaking has become infinitely easier than it was for previous generations. Martha Cooper traveled the world photographing for National Geographic before the days of digital photography. She would have to physically purchase, carry, store, develop and print the hundreds of thousands of exposures of film required for one story.
She constantly battled against the physical mass and cost of that medium. This made photography or filmmaking accessible only to those with a formal education and money. We don’t have any of those issues anymore, anyone can walk into a store and purchase a $500 camera and a hard drive and start a career as a photographer or a documentary filmmaker. This project has given me a greater appreciation for how easy we have it now, and for the skill that was required to shoot on film.
BSA:Martha was one of the first documentors of the graffiti scene. What will the audience learn about how Martha first found out that she wanted to document the graffiti movement? Selina Miles: It is my firm belief that I cannot make a film that will do anything for the documentation of early graffiti that wasn’t done by Style Wars in 1983, but I hope that the graffiti community leaves this film feeling well represented, and with greater context of how Martha Cooper became the legend we regard today.
BSA:How can people help you complete your film? Selina Miles: Right now we are wrapping up our last month of post production, and searchin over the last few weeks we have been able to dig for new archival material. If anybody out there has footage of Marty, no matter what quality or how big or small, please send it to me! It might be just the bit that I am missing.
Marty’s story is such an international one, it’s so great to receive clips showing her at work in different locations around the world. Every little bit helps really bring to life the incredible bond that is shared within the graffiti and street art communities.
The slides of early tags were a selection for a chapter in Martha’s book “Hip Hop Files”. “Make Your Mark” was a possible chapter heading she and the publisher eventually decided not to use. It comes from a 1982 anti-graffiti poster Koch put in the subways saying “Make your mark in society not on society.” It became a joke among graff writers, still remembered and quoted today.