Reissued ‘Subway Art’ is still moving

Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant documented the elaborate New York City graffiti in “Subway Art.’’ The 25th anniversary edition is now available. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant documented the elaborate New York City graffiti in “Subway Art.’’ The 25th anniversary edition is now available.
By Adam Mansbach
August 8, 2009

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Originally published in 1984, and re-released in a lavish, large-format, 25th anniversary edition, “Subway Art’’ is probably one of the most influential art books ever.

By documenting the ephemeral masterpieces of the New York City graffiti movement - elaborate, colorful murals illegally spray-painted on the sides of subway trains that traveled throughout the city - photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant altered the course of graffiti history.

Rejected by American publishers because of its controversial topic, “Subway Art’’ found a home at the British house Thames & Hudson, and went on to sell more than half-a-million copies. But even before it was published, Cooper and Chalfant’s work was making an impact on the graffiti community. Working independently, both developed close ties to the mostly teenage writers - as these artists call themselves, their subject matter being words and their initial, pre-aerosol medium being markers.

Writers’ self-documentation had been spotty; not only did they lack sophisticated photographic equipment and knowledge, but being seen snapping graffiti photos was legally risky. Although writers were assiduous in analyzing and judging the pieces flying by on the trains, sustained study was difficult unless you were in a train yard - and even then, it was dark and the cars were parked too close together to get a good view. That meant style and technique were passed on largely through mentor-apprentice relationships. High-quality photographs made it possible to learn - and “bite,’’ or steal - from strangers.

When “Subway Art’’ was published, this became true on a worldwide level. Along with the superb documentary “Style Wars’’ - on which Chalfant also collaborated - and New York writers’ personal travels, the book helped to spark local graffiti scenes from Chicago to Copenhagen to Cape Town. It was a style manual, a greatest-hits compilation, an annotated guide to a subculture.

Then, as now, the book is breathtaking - and for those of us who have spent years scrutinizing one-by-two inch photographs, the chance to see them at three times the size feels like a gift. The exuberance and sophistication of the pieces is easier to appreciate in the larger format.

The excitement of the photographers, too, is palpable. Chalfant’s aesthetic and Cooper’s are as different, and as complimentary, as their backgrounds. A fine artist whose frustration with the New York scene coincided with the explosion of graffiti, Chalfant’s technique was to crop out the environment and isolate the train piece as if it were a canvas. Cooper, an accomplished photojournalist who quit a job at the New York Post to focus on graffiti, took the opposite approach, framing trains in their natural environments: cutting across elevated tracks, pulling into crowded stations.

The anniversary edition features new interviews with the authors, but eliminates much of the original’s copious, informative text on subjects such as graffiti practices, mores, and terms. It is much more of a straightforward art book. Had “Subway Art’’ been published in this form initially its impact would have been greatly diminished. As a companion piece to the original, though, it is a thing of beauty. And the decision to eliminate many of the more anthropological aspects is telling: What was once revelatory, it seems to suggest, is now generally understood.

In this new edition, as in the original, Chalfant and Cooper demonstrate deep passion and respect for the art they’ve documented, and continuing delight at the diffusion of a movement they helped to set on its worldwide course. “Subway Art’’ at 25 feels as fresh as ever, and the new edition gives it the patina of classic.

Adam Mansbach is the author of “The End of the Jews,’’ winner of the California Book Award for Fiction.

SUBWAY ART By Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant

Chronicle, 127 pp., $40

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