Subway Art is to graffiti books what Wild Style is to graffiti movies. It documents not only the genesis of a new art form, but also a period of urban history and the birth of hip hop culture. Originally published in 1984, it was the first book to take graffiti seriously as an art form and activity with cultural significance, rather than just writing it off as an act of youthful vandalism by kids with too much time on their hands and too little discipline at home.
Heralded on the cover of the original printing of the book as “America’s newest folk art,” graffiti is not for the faint of heart; it’s a dangerous art form. It’s illegal and involves trespassing, so there’s always the risk of being chased and apprehended by a security guard or police officer. There is also an added risk of injury – even death – for those whose chosen canvas is the sides of commuter trains. But despite (and in some part because of) these risks, graffiti has been described as more of a calling than a pastime for its creators. Even though it is buffed off trains, bridges, and buildings as fast as it is put on them, young artists take huge risks to create these ephemeral works for the sheer joy of glimpsing a train riding the rails with their piece coating it from end to end, for all to see. It can be an addiction, and those who create it love their work.
The book’s authors have impressive credentials: Martha Cooper is a photojournalist specializing in Art and Anthropology with a diploma in Ethnology from Oxford University, and Henry Chalfant studied classical Greek at Stanford University and is a renowned stone sculptor as well as a well-known photographer. Cooper’s photos have appeared in National Geographic, Audubon and Art News while Chalfant’s photos and sculptures have been exhibited in both the United States and Europe. After moving to New York in the 1970s (early for Chalfant, late for Cooper), each individually developed a fascination with graffiti. They were the only two photographers seriously seeking out graffiti at that time, so they were destined to come across each other. Their relationship began with a showcase of their photographs, which led to a friendly competition to see who could get the most impressive photos. And so the project that led to this book was born.
The book is a stunning array of photography that showcases some of the greatest works of graffiti of the time. It contains the work of Dondi White, Lady Pink, Futura, Seen and Blade, among others. It also features photographs of some of these legends at work, rare images given the illegality and nocturnal nature of the work and its relative obscurity. The resulting images are mesmerizing for anyone who loves graffiti. The book has little text, instead allowing the images speak for themselves.
The new edition of the book is hard-cover rather than the original soft-cover version. I was expecting it to be pretty much the same size as the original, but it is also much larger. The original was about the size of a magazine and not much thicker, the new version is over a foot high, hard-cover, and packs some weight to it. As a result the images (of which there are over 70 more than in the original) are much larger and printed on better quality paper, so they are a true joy to look at. Even if you’ve already got the 1984 version (as I do), I’d recommend picking up this anniversary edition – it’s well worth the upgrade. Just make sure you’ve got a sturdy coffee table to keep this sucker on, because there’s no way it’s going to fit on your bookshelves.