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Transit Art: The NY Subway Graffiti Through Martha Cooper’s Lens
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On October 27, 1904, the New York City subway system was inaugurated, destined to become, from the 1970s onward, the "moving canvas" of the world's first graffiti and street art scene.

We pay tribute to the birth of the NY Subway through the photographic legacy of Martha Cooper, the famous – and invaluable – photojournalist who immortalized the graffiti scene on the legendary Line 1 during the ’70s and ’80s.

Martha Cooper – Subway Station, NY – 1980

On October 27 – 1904, almost a hundred and twenty years ago, the New York subway system was born, destined to become one of the longest-lasting and most extensive in the world. While it wasn’t the first of its kind (that honor goes to London in 1863), New York’s subway holds a more significant distinction: it was the first to be “vandalized” by the emerging New York graffiti scene in the ’70s, effectively becoming the first open-air canvas for the global street art scene.

Read Also: 50 Years of Hip Hop Culture on Show in NY.

Futura 2000, NY 1980 Martha Cooper.

Read Also: Sneaker Game meets Art #1: Futura 2000.

We want to celebrate the anniversary of the NY subway’s birth through the photographic heritage of Martha Cooper, the renowned photojournalist who, in the ’70s and ’80s, immortalized the graffiti and street art scene of the “city that never sleeps.Martha Cooper has become a reference point in the world of this genre of photography and is the author of what is considered the “Graffiti Bible,” her first book titled “Subway Art”,¬†originally published in 1984.

NY Subway Line 1 – Martha Cooper, 1983

This work is described as a “Milestone in photographic history and graffiti art” and features iconic and irreplaceable shots stolen from New York graffiti pioneers like Futura 2000, Dondi, and Lady Pink.

Martha Cooper‘s journey from photojournalist to graffiti enthusiast began in 1978 when she worked as a photographer for the New York Post, a newspaper based in Lower Manhattan at the time. In addition to covering breaking news, Martha had to take random shots called “weather shots.” This led her to explore the semi-abandoned neighborhood of Alphabet City, with vacant lots and abandoned buildings, in search of a story to tell. She started taking photos of two children playing with toys made from discarded items.

Dondi, 1980s – Martha Cooper

A young man approached her and showed her a small notebook with some of his sketches, explaining that he was practicing painting his name, HE3, on walls with spray cans. At that moment, Martha realized that the tags she saw everywhere were, in fact, nicknames.

The young man then introduced Martha to Dondi, and Dondi welcomed her into the fascinating world of graffiti, through dark tunnels, tunnels, and narrow subway cars. Martha followed Dondi and his friends as they painted the Line 1 subway cars.

In 1980, Martha decided to leave her job at the newspaper and dedicate more time to photographing freshly painted trains. In those years, New York was a hotbed of creative energy: everyone wanted to engage in something artistic, and young people from the ghettos sought to express their identities through various art forms to escape poverty. Some turned to graffiti, others to rap, breakdancing, or DJing.

The streets of the Big Apple were a cauldron in which one of the most significant subcultures of the last 50 years, hip-hop, was simmering. Martha Cooper came into contact with street artists who translated onto walls what the rappers expressed through their rhymes. She met Futura 2000, who, among all, witnessed the transition from street artist to gallery artist.

Martha Cooper’s photographic work has invaluable anthropological value, representing the only archive collected by a single photographer of the early graffiti and street art scene.

Among her publications are ‘Subway Art,’ in collaboration with Henry Chalfant, ‘R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art,‘ ‘Hip Hop Files 1980-1984,‘ ‘We B*Girlz,’ ‘Street Play,‘New York State of Mind,’ ‘Tag Town,’ ‘Going Postal,’ and ‘Tokyo Tattoo 1970.’ Additionally, there’s a beautiful documentary on Netflix titled ‘Watch Martha: A Picture Story.’

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