Women on Train, 1981. All photographs © Martha Cooper, from Spray Nation: 1980s NYC Graffiti Photographs by Martha Cooper, Edited by Roger Gastman © Prestel Verlag, Munich · London · New York, 2022
Photographer Martha Cooper got unrivalled access to the revolutionary street art scene of 1980s New York. Now her best work is being shared in a new book.
Only those of a certain age will remember this. But there was a time in the 1950s and ’60s when graffiti was far from fun. Dominated by grim and nasty scrawl, it was overwhelmingly devoid of artistic merit, replete with obscenity and dominated by offensive slurs.
Then, in the 1970s, a revolution began in the subways of New York City, as youngsters spray-painted vibrant, colourful, cartoonish and overwhelmingly positive graffiti that would spread around the world and change the art scene forever.
Now a thrilling new book, published by Prestel, brings that era back to glorious life. Set for release this September, Spray Nation: 1980s NYC Graffiti Photographs features never-before-seen images of the legendary period, culled from the archive of photographer Martha Cooper.
At the time, Cooper had unrivalled access as one of the only adults allowed inside the clandestine scene that brought together black, Latino and white teens. The book brilliantly evokes the action, adventure, and artistic anarchy of this exciting period.
Cooper’s own story is, in many ways, as fascinating as those of the kids she was documenting. Nearing 40, she quit her job as the first female staff photographer at the New York Post in 1980 in order to chronicle the golden age of subway graffiti.
Under cover of night, she crept into train yards with no fear of arrest, agilely manoeuvring her way between the massive steel cars. Her actions could literally be described as “death-defying”, given the 600 volts of live electricity that steadily coursed through the third rail on the line.
ART IS THE WORD by ALIVE 5, 1981
CAR WASH by CEY, 1982
Now approaching 80, Cooper continues to travel the globe, documenting the contemporary street art and graffiti scene, inspired in large part by the 1984 publication of Subway Art, which she co-authored with Henry Chalfant.
However, her historical archive from the 1980s New York remains her crowning glory. It contains thousands of 35mm Kodachrome slides of intimate portraits, action shots, walls, subway cars, and gallery openings.
“Martha’s photos [are] like this crazy high school yearbook,” writes editor Roger Gastman in the foreword to the book. “As a result, Cooper is who every graffiti writer, fan, collector and researcher wants to come and see. Most of them have not had the privilege of going to her studio and seeing the great amount of work she has amassed over the years — it’s truly awe-inspiring. But every so often, she pulls out yet another gem where we all scratch our heads and think, Oh shit, what else is Martha holding?”
CEY with his sketches at Graphiti Productions Inc. Gallery, 1982
Writers unknown, 1981-1982
LAC with his black book, Lower East Side, 1982
Roger has a clear passion for the topic, as collector, curator and founder of Beyond the Streets, an organisation that creates large-scale exhibitions of street art. So he was the perfect person to patiently go through thousands of slides in order to select the right images for the book.
“I knew her body of work, the context of the photos and was no stranger to packaging book projects,” he explains. And while it took longer than he expected, it was worth it. “The project is better because of the extra time we spent on it. We’ve wrestled with many formats and even started over completely. In the end, there are hundreds of incredible photos, most of which are being seen for the first time.”
Graffiti Hall of Fame by VULCAN & TNT CREW, East Harlem, 1981
Martha Cooper, 1982. Image courtesy Martha Cooper
The book features images of luminaries including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Patti Astor, Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, DJ Kay Slay aka Dez, Dondi, Lady Pink, Iz the Wize, Daze, Crash, and others. It includes essays from Roger Gastman, Brooklyn Street Art’s Steven P. Harrington, journalist Miss Rosen, Jayson Edlin aka TERROR161, and curator Brian Wallis.
And there may be more to come yet. “By no means do I think this project is the last involving Martha’s archives,” Roger writes. “Her files are just that deep. Just like a graffiti writer has his/her version of events, this is sorta like mine; a very specific vision of how I saw ’80s graffiti through Martha Cooper’s lens.”