When you see all these post-its art fans may be reminded of installations like Yoko Ono’s “My Mommy is Beautiful” – Hirshhorn Museum a few years back when they see the walls flooded with paper missives. Similarly those who were here in the weeks and months following 9/11 will remember memorials of post-its on subway walls – one in Union Square comes to mind here.
This week it appeared in the subway again as the mid-term elections took place across the country and many felt that the tons of dark money had stirred them into a frenzy. Commuters again flocked to the colorful sticky squares to pen their hopes, confessions, desires, opinions and secrets once again in a very private/public way.
Suffice to say that you never really know what the person next to you on the subway is thinking.
“If I had my way, I wouldn’t put in dogs, but wolves,” New York mayor Ed Koch suggested famously as a facetious proposal for loosing ferocious animals on graffiti writers in the train yards in the early 1980s. For Koch and his two predecessors the graffiti on trains was a searingly hot focal point, a visual affront to citizens, an aesthetic plague upon the populous. It created a discomforting atmosphere described by the New York Times editorial board as evidence of “criminality and contempt for the public”.[note]Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, Jonathan M. Soffer.[/note] The fight against this particular blight began in earnest and by decade’s end all 5,000 or so subway cars had become clean and the famed era of graffiti on trains was terminated.
Twenty-five years later, whole-car graffiti trains are back in New York. Visually bombed with color and stylized typography top to bottom, inside and outside, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is pocketing some handsome fees for it. It is not aerosol anymore, rather the eye popping subway skin is made from enormous adhesive printed sheets that are laser cut to perfectly fit every single surface of a train car. Naturally, you won’t have to pay the newly hiked subway fare to see these whole-car creations – you can see them on elevated tracks all over the city.
The irony doesn’t stop there; Right now the MTA is running a full-car advertisement for a “Street Art” series that appears on cable, featuring images of fleet-footed youth with art supplies in hand running down a Brooklyn sidewalk as if escaping from the police. “Run. Paint.”
“Of course I chuckle every time I see those ad-covered cars,” says Martha Cooper, the ethnographer and photographer perhaps best known for shooting images of artists like Lee Quinones and Dondi as they painted huge pieces in the train yards in the 1970s and 80s. Together with Henry Chalfant, Cooper published what became a photographic holy book for generations of graff writers and Street Artists worldwide, a compendium of full-car aerosol painted pieces from New York’s graffiti train era entitled Subway Art. When it comes to using trains for advertising, Cooper doesn’t appear offended, but rather gives credit for the idea to the youth who pioneered the technique of using trains as a self-promotional method, and she’s only puzzled about why this didn’t happen earlier.
“Graffiti writers instinctively understood how advertising could reach the most people in NYC,” she says, “It’s taken 45 years for the MTA and ad agencies to realize what a good idea top-to-bottom rolling ads are, on trucks as well as on the subway. They are finally catching on and catching up but they would probably be the last to admit it. The rest of us can just stand back and shake our heads in amusement.”
But some others are less ready to accept the irony of a Street Art program being promoted on train cars, including guys who were those same vilified/celebrated teens painting trains at a time when penalties were harsh and the dogs were real.
“What a complete bite and contradiction on the MTA’s part,” says artist Lee Quiñones, perhaps best known for having painted as many as 125 entire cars by hand in the 1970s, as well as a more formal art career that followed. His fully painted cars as canvases included characters, scenes, and narratives addressing topical subjects like the crime rate, the cold war, poverty, and environmentalism – as well as more existential teen poetry about love and family. For Quiñones, who once called the #5 subway line the “Rolling MoMA” and who today is a fine artist with a successful studio practice, the paradox is obvious. “It exposes how certain things under the guidance of capital can be blatantly suggested and ingested within the same context.”
Jayson Edlin, author of Graffiti 365, is considered by many as a go-to source of New York graffiti and its history, and was himself a train writer under the names J.Son and Terror 161. “The advertising versus art argument regarding graffiti and street art speaks to money, power and control. Societal hypocrisy is nothing new. As a former subway painter, I am not surprised by seeing an ad for a Street Art TV show plastered across a NYC subway car,” he says. Then he pitches us a vision that would undoubtedly make many people’s brain hurt. “I’m certain that the MTA would sanction an ad for Subway Art with the Marty Cooper photo of Dondi painting a train for the right sum.” Imagine what that might look like.
Not so fast, the MTA would not wish you to think they are endorsing illegal graffiti or street art, according to an MTA spokesperson recently interviewed by Bucky Turco for the website Animal. The MTA walked a thin line when determining whether they should accept advertising for a show celebrating Street Art, however contrived, and decided that it was okay to take the money this time. “On the one hand,” says the spokesman, “our ad standards prohibit anything that could be construed as actual graffiti, and we also prohibit promoting illegal activity. On the other hand, the typeface of the ad itself was not graffiti-style, and our research concluded that everything the show depicts is done legally with permission.” So we’ll take the MTA at it’s word, the show doesn’t explicitly violate standards for advertising, so the campaign was approved.
It’s true, not all Street Art is illegal per se, but by definition most people would say that real graffiti must be. However it may take a lawyer to explain how this rationalization of advertising a show like this works, or at least to help sort the legalities from the ethics and perceptions. So, to recap, decades ago it was a crime to write graffiti on the subways. Today if you have enough money and the right hand-style with your lettering you can use your creativity to mark up as many cars as you like. If not, your art-making efforts will be swiftly eradicated. This past year photographer Jaime Rojo just happened to catch some non-commercial art on trains that pulled into stations and he said it was just as surprising to see the real stuff as it is the commercial facsimile of it. Of course the D.I.Y. never made it out of the train yards again.
Alison Young, Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination has studied the interaction of art, advertising, and the law specifically as it pertains to Street Art around the world. She points to a radical difference in how these two forms of visual communication are regarded and approached. “The full-car advertisement for the television program is certainly the most obvious demonstration of how companies (such as the MTA) respond differently to advertising than to street art/graffiti.
“In some ways,” Young continues, “the MTA may not even have noticed the irony of covering a train car with an advert for an activity related to graffiti, given the time and money spent on eradicating images from train cars. Or, if I was being really cynical, it’s also possible to speculate that the MTA sees that irony all too clearly and is using this as an opportunity to tell graffiti writers that unsanctioned art is never acceptable, but sanctioned art (in the form of an advert or in the form of the art featured on the show) is all that we are permitted to see. Is that too unlikely? I don’t know.”
A number of folks whom we talked to mentioned that this is not the first time a graffiti artist has completely covered subway cars with advertisements, as the artist KAWS was treated to a full campaign when he partnered with Macy’s a couple of years ago. While he has had a successful commercial career with fine art, toys and a variety of products, his roots are as a graffiti writer, has done some freight painting of his own, and his style still reflects it. Not every impressionable disaffected youth would necessarily make that association nor interpret it as an encouragement to hit up a train with your own aerosol bubble tag. Still, those KAWS cars looked a lot like graffiti trains, with logos as tags, as in seen in this video from Fresh Paint NYC.
We leave the last observations to the witty and insightful Dr. Rafael Schacter, anthropologist, curator, and author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, who says the obvious story is, well, obvious, but don’t miss the elephant in the subway car.
“The irony and incongruity of it though? Of course. It is ridiculous. It is absurd. A graffiti-banning MTA promoting a graffiti TV show and allowing a second-rate aping of the original whole-trains of the ‘70s,” he says derisively. But then he turns frank and even wistful in his final summary.
“But, in actual fact, I LOVE these moments. I love them as they so perfectly illustrate the public secret of our public sphere: That consumption wins. That the highest bidder is the true King. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing surprising but it is the revelation of the public secret that can actually come to raise awareness of that secret itself – That the public sphere has come to be a space not for conversation but for commerce. That the public sphere has become a place not for interpersonal communication but for capital and consumption,” says Schacter.
“These moments can, I hope, make us sit up and realize this revelation because it is thrown so directly in our faces. Then, hopefully, this can make us make a change. Perhaps a tiny bit of a rose-tinted position to take, but I really do hope so.”
Rose-tinted views will probably overruled by the green-tinted ones in this case, but we understand the sentiment. But many New York subway riders will not likely soon get over the irony.
Martha Cooper landed in LA yesterday and will spend the next week installing her photos and their remixed new versions beside them, even flanking hers like stereo speakers. Since the press release has gone out we thought we’d share with you the bio written by Steven P. Harrington and the promo photo by Jaime Rojo which will appear in a special issue of The Art Street Journal dedicated entirely to her to come out this week.
Martha Cooper, Photographer of Art on the Streets for Six Decades
Written by Steven P. Harrington, this article is featured in The Art Street Journal vol ii – issue v.
The daughter of a Baltimore camera store owner, Martha Cooper’s romance with photography began in the 1940s when bobby-soxers and penny loafers were the sign of edgy youth culture. Her dad, an amateur photographer himself, gave his small girl a camera and together they hit the streets in search of adventure. “Yeah, my father used to take me out and we would take pictures. That’s what I thought photography was…we were just looking for pictures,” she recalls. Six decades later, Cooper is still looking for pictures; meanwhile, many works from her archive are cited as pivotal recordings of the birth of hip-hop culture and its plastic art form, graffiti.
During the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, Cooper earned a Bachelors of Art degree in Iowa, taught English for the Peace Corps in Thailand and rode a motorcycle from Bangkok to obtain a graduate degree at Oxford. As a freelancer and staff photographer in Japan, Maryland and Rhode Island in the early 1970s she moved to the media and art center of New York City to catch bigger fish. Landing a job on the staff of The New York Post in 1977, she discovered that the resistant and competitive boys club of photographers there were reluctant to countenance this scrappy young woman shooting hard news stories and Studio 54 celebrities.
Hungry for discovery, Cooper would spend her time to and from assignments in bombed-out neighborhoods, where she took pictures of kids entertaining themselves with games they devised on the street, often with the humblest of materials. It was during one of those trips that she stumbled on graffiti and the members of its community. She met a young boy who suggested she photograph the work she was seeing, then showed her a stylized drawing of his name, or piece, in his notebook.
Then he asked her if she wanted to meet “The King”.
Following this lead to Brooklyn, Cooper met Dondi, the citywide-famous graffiti writer who kept a published photo of hers in his black book because its background contained one of his graffiti throw-ups. Cooper quickly realized that she had stumbled into a lively street culture and became an avid student of the teen writers she befriended. By the time she took her last news picture for the New York Post in 1980, her primary desire was to capture as many pieces, tags, and trains as she possibly could find. Today, she remarks on her near-obsessive devotion to documenting New York’s graffiti: waking before dawn to hit the street, waiting five hours for a freshly painted #2 train to pass with the sun at her back and countless secret adventures with vandals in train yards, evading transit police in order to pursue a shot.
Joining efforts with fellow graffiti photographer, Henry Chalfant, Cooper proposed putting together a book of their documentation. The pair endured multiple rejections from publishers while lugging around a big “dummy” book with their pictures glued to the pages. Eventually, however, they landed a deal and Subway Art was published in 1984. Although not an immediate success, it came to sell half a million copies and established itself as a holy book for fans, aspiring artists and art historians worldwide.
By the time the 25th anniversary edition was published in 2009, generations of graffiti and street artists had been influenced by it and the hip-hop culture Cooper and Chalfant had captured had gone global.
In the intervening years, Martha Cooper never stopped shooting. Her love of serendipity on the street and the exploration of cultures led her to publish thousands of photos in books such as R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art, Hip Hop Files 1979-1984, We B*Girlz, Street Play, New York State of Mind, Tag Town, Going Postal, and Name Tagging. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and published in numerous magazines including National Geographic, Natural History, and Vibe. While she is still shooting graffiti, street art and the occasional break dance competition today, Cooper’s current project involves documenting people and events in Sowebo, a drug-riddled neighborhood in her birthplace of Baltimore.
Steven P. Harrington is editor-in-chief of BrooklynStreetArt.com and co-author (with Jaime Rojo) of Brooklyn Street Art and Street Art New York, both by Prestel Publishing. He and Jaime Rojo are also contributing writers on street art for The Huffington Post.
Photographs by Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper ; Remix
Original remixes of these photographs in a range of media by Aeon, John Ahearn, Aiko, Bio, Nicer & B-Gee, Blade, Blanco, Mark Bode, Burning Candy, Victor Castillo, Cey, Cekis, Claw, Cosbe, Crash, Dabs & Myla, Anton van Dalen, Daze, Dearraindrop, Jane Dickson, Dr. Revolt, Shepard Fairey, Faust, Flying Fortress, Freedom, Fumakaka, Futura, Gaia, Grotesk, Logan Hicks, How & Nosm, LA II, Lady Pink, Anthony Lister, The London Police, Mare 139, Barry McGee, Nazza Stencil, Nunca, José Parlá, Quik, Lee Quinones, Kenny Scharf, Sharp, Skewville, Chris Stain, Subway Art History, Swoon, T-Kid, Terror161 and more.
Carmichael Gallery is pleased to announce Martha Cooper: Remix, an expansive group show featuring highlights from Martha Cooper’s photographic archive and works by over 50 artists who have created their own unique interpretations of her iconic, historically significant imagery. There will be an opening reception for the exhibition on Saturday, April 9 from 6 to 8pm with Martha Cooper and several of the participating artists in attendance. The exhibition will run through May 7, 2011.
Click on the link below to read BSA interview with Martha Cooper:
The neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn is better known for beautiful Brownstones, impossible parking, towering maples, social liberals and baby strollers than graffiti or street art.There is one commercial strip down the upper middle of this town-y enclave,with delis and bagel shops and The New York Times on Sunday –and aside from the occasional mural or stickered paper-box, not a whole lot of Street Art action.
On a recent sunny Saturday on 5th ave and Union Street, you may have seen a window display that made you think of street art. In fact, you can see it from the street, and local artist Ryan Seslow is a huge fan of the New York Street Art scene.
Park Slope window installation by artist Ryan Seslow as a satelite to “Programmed”
Brooklyn Street Art: Tell us about yourself.
Ryan Seslow: My name is Ryan Seslow. I’m a multidisciplinary artist living and working in New York. I am also a professor of fine arts teaching studio courses between 4 colleges here in NY and I’m always involved in several different projects at once, it seems, either as an artist, curator, or both.
I feel like I’m 3 or 4 different kinds of artists all trapped into one body. I have more energy than I usually know what to do with, so I love to exercise that on artistic potential and experimentation. Making art from a very young age, my real love for art came from the inspiration I found in 1980’s graffiti, public art, and cartoons. Martha Cooper’s “Subway Art” was, and still is, one of my all-time favorite books.
I was a teenager when the b-boy movement got a hold of me. My entire family is from various parts of Brooklyn, so weekends and summers were spent combing the streets looking for inspiration, while trying to mimic the works I saw.
The original “Subway Art” book by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant
Brooklyn Street Art: Can you talk about “Programmed” and what it’s about?
Ryan Seslow: I was recruited to do a satellite installation for “Programmed“, a show about rethinking the relationship with these electronic objects in our lives that we no longer use. The concept of the show was to synthesize the use of obsolete electronics into your work. It touches areas of recycling and the ephemeral existence of many things in today’s world.
I had already been doing this in another commercial window space for a few years, so the fit was nice and exciting. The owner also had this great public window space that he wanted to use to showcase my installation-based works, rather than just filling the space with redundant advertising so we collaborated ideas on the use of the space.
In both projects I wanted to inspire and reach the general public of Park Slope with colorful installations that would show a variety of traditional art techniques as well as more non-traditional works. The context of the commercial window space was perfect to contradict what is essentially public work.
Artist Ryan McIntosh’s piece from the “Programmed” exhibit, made from hard drives, is called “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall” (image courtesy www.cultofmac.com)
Brooklyn Street Art: Can you talk about some of the materials you used and their significance.
Ryan Seslow: The materials are intuitive manifestations and representations of what can be used to make ART. I’m all about the allowance of communication and self-expression. The curators did ask me to emphasize the use of obsolete electronics. The Mac Support Store (the installation site) is also a hub for the recycling of used computer parts.
The store had this enormous mountain of stuff to choose from and I was drawn to the keyboards right away because keyboards are objects of serious potential; amazing tools and an intermediary means of infinite communication. Each keyboard has the potential of writing the next great literary novel or the next great resolution to help the world. The keyboards connect both the familiar and unfamiliar imagery in the installation, maybe helping the viewers create narratives between the pop icons and the technology.
“I love making art. I’m pretty much obsessed with the process of generating things. I love learning new skills, not so much to isolate the skill itself, but more to integrate it into what I am already doing. I like to test the potentials of things,” Ryan Seslow.
Brooklyn Street Art: How long did it take you to prepare for this, and do the installation?
Ryan Seslow: This installation was built in less than two hours – It is an art practice in itself.
My installations are all intuitive and immediate. I have been working pretty large for about 10 years now so the energy that goes with setting up an installation is always thrilling and I like the challenge of working with the space. Each piece is created individually, so they must hold up that way first, but the installations are 100% modular. Every piece must ultimately fit and work together as a whole by means of form, color and content.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you think of this as street art?
Ryan Seslow: I do think of this installation as street art. I have been a lover and a participant in the medium of street art for a long time. I may be a lot more careful about when and where I put my work up than I was 10 years ago; that knowledge comes from past experiences. Art forms should be embraced as ongoing expanding things, by seeing the potential of why and how they can fit the foundation of where they began. This exercise itself forms ideas and allows for expansion.
The work is right on the street, the viewers are those walking by on the side walk, or driving by in their cars. It has been framed in glass and protected to a degree. I find this interesting as well. I anticipate more museums and galleries doing this in the future as the context of public art develops and artists continue to push its limits.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you have any favorite Street Artists whose work you follow?
Ryan Seslow: I love and follow several street artists on a daily basis. I’m a big fan of the BSA site as well as the Wooster Collective. Some of my favorite artists are John Fekner, Michael DeFeo, Gaia , Jeff Soto, Abe Lincoln Jr., Miss Van, Faile, Bast, Robert Williams, Lady Pink , Fafi, Gary Baseman, Tim Biscup, Barry McGee, Swoon, and so many more, too many to name!
Ryan used computer pieces, paper, film, and this image of Jackie Kennedy on the screen of a monitor for the installation.
Brooklyn Street Art: How does Jackie Kennedy figure into the piece?
Ryan Seslow: Funny, Jackie O and JFK have always left this long-lasting impression on me. When the John F. Kennedy assassination was brought up to me in the 5th or 6th grade, in a history class, it never left me. I recall being really freaked out by the way I was interpreting the whole event. As time went on, by the time we got into high school, we were shown the actual assassination film itself (you know the one). At least once a year, I seek to find old and grainy images of the couple. I think they represent some form of the ephemeral with in me. They remind me that our stay here on this planet is not forever, it activates this crazy gratitude to and for all things.
60 second silent collage of the Kennedys.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you ever hang out and spy on people who have stopped to look at your installation?
Ryan Seslow: Nah, not too much spying, but I do get people who approach me and ask some interesting questions from time to time. Kids seem to be big fans on a regular basis! I have gotten several independent commissions this way, just by creating live art that invites the public to participate by simply talking to me. I am always left with a memory of the experience.
Brooklyn Street Art: You’ve done drawing, painting, stenciling, collage, even sculpture – is there something you haven’t tried but would like to?
Ryan Seslow: That is a great question. I love making art. I’m pretty much obsessed with the process of generating things. I love learning new skills, not so much to isolate the skill itself, but more to integrate it into what I am already doing. I like to test the potentials of things. I would love to do more with the synthesis of street art, public sculpture, experimental film and collaborations.
Actually, this is what I mean; I want to collaborate more with other artists. There is so much to learn when you work with other people, which is one of the main reasons I became an art professor.
Detail from the installation by Ryan Seslow
Brooklyn Street Art: What’s the next project you’ll be working on?
Ryan Seslow: Got several things going on right now. I’m teaching 8 courses this semester, so teaching is a bit more demanding than usual. I’m also curating a special video art/experimental documentary program for The Streaming Festival in the Netherlands , working on an installation series for public art in Jericho Plaza in Long Island, a group video art stills project in Denmark, participating in MagMart in Naples, and I’m part of a top secret underground stencil project.
For the silly folks who consider themselves ordained to be critics, the prodigious street art scene in New York just bubbles with possibilities.
One of the favorite criticisms of a street artists’ piece today is its’ lack of originality, whether because it closely resembles the style of anothers’ work already on the street, or because it seems like an outright appropriation. Imitation is not always interpreted as flattery.
It’s a fine line to tread for any creative person – dancer, singer, fashion designer, or stencil artist – when they decide to “pay homage” to the work of another, or merely to love it so much that is serves as an “influence”. One recent discovery on the street by New York street art photographer Jaime Rojo included this wheat-paste of a pretty famous image from the New York photographer, Diane Arbus, smacked onto a bed of tropical flowers by Shin Shin:
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962), by Diane Arbus. On the right street artist JC2 colors the grenade red. (photo Jaime Rojo)
A quick search of the Arbus image reveals that it has served as inspiration for other street artists here, and here, and here, and here, and even in Spokane! Diane Arbus passed away in 1971 and this is one of her images that has passed through the years into the popular conscience. A case could be made that the image somehow belongs to the people to do with it as they wish, invoking new meanings or recall old ones. Maybe. Ask Che Guevara.
Ready for Anything! Martha Cooper as shot by Jazi Rock
Martha Cooper has been taking pictures for more than fifty years. Yes, you read it right. With a continuously curious mind and sharp eye, Martha Cooper takes photos wherever she goes (including Japan, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Surinam, to name a few), and it is a rare day you will see her without her camera draped around her neck.
Well known in the New York City graffiti and Street Art scene, she’s seen her images in National Geographic, Smithsonian and Natural History Magazines as well as several dozen books and journals. Her photographs of New York’s streets and people are also burned into the minds of thousands; particularly the minds of young artists worldwide who examined their own creative skills after laying their eyes on “Subway Art”, the book she and Henry Chalfant published a quarter century ago. Many have since used Martha’s work as inspiration for their own.
Cooper’s now iconic image of graffiti writer Dondi was the inspiration for the work by Grotesk on the right.
Ms. Cooper is no diva, but she is direct. Well traveled and warm, she smiles and laughs easily when talking with most people, and when the subject is photography, she easily shares her knowledge and opinion with you. In the past few years, a number of artists have been inspired by her work, and while humble, she is proud of the ongoing influence it has had.
Easy173 did a mural (left) based on her photo of Dondi (right) (photos Martha Cooper)
Brooklyn Street Art: How do you feel when your work is appropriated and re-purposed by another artist?
Martha Cooper: I’m flattered the artists are actually looking at my work and liking it well enough to create something new based on it.
This image from “Street Play” by Martha was reinterpreted by Nazza on an LP vinyl. (photo Martha Cooper)
Street artist Chris Stain credits the photography of Ms. Cooper for shaping his own view of art and culture, and her impact can not be overestimated in his view. He has poured over the pages of her books for years and internalized the imagery as well as the messages they convey about urban culture, the hip hop movement, and people.
“Martha’s influence on my work began back in 1984 when I first stole a copy of ‘Subway Art’. Graffiti hadn’t been documented so intimately (except by writers) in my opinion up until this point. I sat for hours day after day studying the photos, turning the book sideways and upside down trying to come up with my own styles.
“Urban Harmony” (upper right) by Chris Stain incorporates 3 of Martha Coopers images into one of his pieces (2 shown here)
Had it not been for her initial documentation I don’t think graffiti or hip hop would be the world wide phenomenon it is today. With the release of ‘Hip Hop Files’ a few years ago I got more of an insight into her photo journalistic work; Once again she was capturing the essence of the birth of a movement.
When I look at those photos today at 37 I feel like I’m 11 years old again. I am met with the same excitement as when I first witnessed them. But more importantly I have the same hope that people can build their dreams out of seemingly nothing.
I came across ‘Street Play’ and immediately connected with the photographs of kids playing in their neighborhoods. This time I contacted Martha and asked permission to work from some of the pictures. She kindly obliged. Since then I have worked from a number of her photographs.
Her work speaks to me directly not only because she is from Baltimore but because she goes to the “heart” of the matter. Whether its Dondi hanging on and painting in-between subway cars, Ken Swift floor rockin’ at Common Ground, or a child holding his pigeon to the sky on a rooftop, Martha’s work is undeniably not only the most prolific but some of the most important documentation of organic cultures and city life to have grown out of New York and America as a whole.” – Chris Stain
“Among the artists who have ‘re-interpreted’ my photos include the Burning Candy Crew in London. Henry Chalfant and I were recently there for the London release of ‘Subway Art’ at Black Rat Gallery and Burning Candy painted a lot of canvases from Subway Art.”
Whistling while they work, these goulish Sweet Toof train writers influenced by photos by Martha Cooper in “Subway Art”
Brooklyn Street Art: Did you think that eventually your work would be influential to a generation of artists and photographers?
Martha Cooper: Not at all. I would say that my work is pretty much unknown to artists and photographers of my own generation so it’s especially gratifying to connect with younger artists and photogs.
An image by Martha Cooper on the left was interpreted in a large mural street artist Armsrock did with Chris Stain in Brooklyn at the end of July. Says Martha, “I took that photo on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) in 1978. Don’t know who the boy is or anything more about his drawing. The photo is part of a series published in my book ‘Street Play’.” (photo on right by Jaime Rojo)
Brooklyn Street Art: What’s your impression of the current state of street art in New York? Martha Cooper: Well I’m definitely not an expert or any kind of art historian so I can’t give you a definitive evaluation. However I love walking around and being surprised by all the fresh stuff going up all over the place. If it weren’t for street art, NYC would be turning into a bland and boring city.
“Shepard Fairey has also worked with two of the images from ‘Street Play’, says Martha. Fairey selected five of the troops from this group of toughs when creating this poster called “Defiant Youth” this year. (photo Martha Cooper, poster Shepard Fairey)
Brooklyn Street Art:Why aren’t there more female street artists? Martha Cooper: I have no idea. I wish there were more. I’m working on another little sticker book, this one about the smaller name badges. I couldn’t find even one active “Hello My Name Is” female stickerer. Do you know any?
Shepard Fairey only slightly changed this image of kids jumping off a fire escape onto a pile of mattresses when he converted it into a stencil. This spring and summer a version of the image was made by Obey’s clothing line into skateboards, caps, t-shirts, and bags along with others of Martha’s “Street Play” photos. (photo on left Martha Cooper)
Brooklyn Street Art: When you hit the street, camera in hand, do you consider yourself more of a photo-journalist, or an artist? Martha Cooper:Neither–an ethnographer.
Brooklyn Street Art:Do you have a word of advice to a street art photographer starting today in New York? Martha Cooper: Back-up!
– Good advice from a person who has catalogued perhaps hundreds of thousands of images of graffiti and street art over the last 30 years. We continued our dialogue about the use of Martha’s images over the years, and she added this clarification, “I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to my own photography. I absolutely hate when designers want to mess with my photos. I want my photos to be used as I took them. However, when an artist wants to take one of my photos and turn it into a completely different piece of art, I don’t mind at all.“
To paraphrase Martha and the critics, the guidance one would offer to a street artist (and any artist) is “Be original”.
Special thanks to Jazi Rock, who at 12 years old “was infected by the graffiti bug when he saw Martha Cooper’s infamous book circulate around his neighborhood” of Baltimore. See more at his website.
See Martha Cooper this weekend with her newest book “Going Postal”
Martha Cooper will be at the MBP Urban Arts Festival this Saturday October 3rd in Bushwick Brooklyn. A multitude of street artists, musical acts, skaters, vendors, and live painting events will be there. You can learn more about the festival HERE.
The day before that on October 2nd, Martha Cooper will be at The New York Art Book Fair. Stop by theSCB booth (Z-01).
Back before it evolved into “street art” there was only graffiti, loosely defined by it’s most often used tool and the act of writing your name –
and as you know, many people thought ill of it and demonized writers and the destruction of property.
On their book tours and events to promote the 25th Anniversary Edition of “Subway Art”, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper make the case that while the kids who sprayed paint on subway cars were regarded as hoodlums, many none-the-less continued to develop their craft in a constructive way and became well-respected artists after their youthful years.
In a radio interview recently with Lionel on Air America, Chalfant says, “Rather than an entry-level crime it is a path to a career.”