The Underground Art Book That Launched a Global Movement Returns
Photo: Bearded character with kids, by unidentified artist, 1981. © Martha Cooper.
During the early 1970s, graffiti made it way to the trains of New York, spreading across the city like a virus and capturing the imagination of a new generation of artists in every borough. Sneaking into the yards and walking through the tunnels in the dead of night, graffiti writers were on a mission like no one had seen before—or has seen since. Fame. Recognition. Renown. In the city that never sleeps, Kings were crowned.
But as quick as it came, it disappeared. Were it not for the photographs, there would be nothing left. Fortunately writers and artists share that same compulsion to document and to collect. As fate would have it, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant had both been documenting the same scene at the same time from distinctive vantage points.
Cooper, then a staff photographer at The New York Post, was taking portraits of the writers at work as well as taking perfect location shots of their masterpieces running the line. At the same time, unbeknownst to her, Henry Chalfant, a sculptor, was documenting whole cars, splicing together a series of photographs he shot on the platform while a train rolled in. Together, they joined forces and produced one of the greatest books the world has ever seen.
First published in 1984, Subway Art (Thames & Hudson) was a sleeper success, going on to sell over a quarter of a million copies in its modest paperback format. With just over 100 pages, it was the seminal text of the times, being purchased, stolen, and shared with a frequency and urgency few books will ever know. It was studied endlessly, inspiring generations of writers the world over. No one had ever seen anything like it: entire movements sprung up in response to the undying impulse to leave your mark on society, in brightly colored letters.
More than thirty years after its original publication Thames & Hudson relaunches Subway Art with over 70 new photographs and in a larger format. The glossy pages recall the look of the times, alive with pleasure like those Newport ads used to say. At this size, the gatefolds continue to amaze and the works of SEEN, BLADE and DONDI are even more impressive with the benefit of age. The sheer magnitude of scale and style seem impossible to imagine today.
As Martha Cooper observes in the book’s new afterword, “I always through that graffiti was a phenomenon that could only happen in New York City. In the late 1970s the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, neighborhoods were crumbling, and the train yards weren’t well fenced or guarded. I thought this situation, combined with the fact that New York was the center of the art world, had created a set of conditions that gave rise to subway graffiti but that couldn’t be duplicated elsewhere. I imagined that graffiti would die out in a few years and that I would have an unusual photo archive. I photographed in the spirit of historic preservation. It never crossed my mind that kids in squeaky-clean countries like Sweden would want to paint trains.”
And for that impulse, we have Subway Art to thank, for the spirit of preservation is what brings these incredible works to life, time and time again. As a SKEME character demands on a train from 1982: “Stop Look and Listen. We Are The Sons Of The Ghetto And We Will Survive”.
is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.