In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay declared a “war on graffiti”, with the aim of eradicating the “plague” that afflicts subway trains. At the time, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and the subway system was barely functioning, but not because of unauthorized paint being applied to its surfaces. Over the next 17 years, the city spent millions of dollars to keep the trains free of graffiti.
The police publicly profiled the mostly teenage writers and called them sociopaths. The war turned misdemeanors into crimes and helped usher in an era of quality-of-life crimes, zero-tolerance policies, three-strike laws.
It was a war for public space – and for the sake of context, it should be noted that at the time young people in New York were also arrested for break dancing in subway stations and hosting DJ parties in Bronx schoolyards without proper permission.
It should also be noted that these activities form the foundation of hip-hop, the most influential subculture of the past 50 years. Graffiti was his oldest element and the first to reach maturity. What began in the late 1960s when crude marker signatures turned into large-scale spray-painted murals in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, graffiti artists were breaking up the alphabet into cubist abstraction , covered sociopolitical commentary trains and invented a visual aesthetic as unique and compelling as the sound of hip-hop or the kinetics of break dancing.
That all of this was accomplished in unlit tank yards, on trains parked so close together that it was impossible to step back to assess the work, is a miracle. The same goes for the dedication of a generation of artists who risked their lives, their physical integrity and their freedom for nothing more than anonymous fame and the satisfaction of a job well done.
“subway art”, first published in 1984 and reissued now in a larger and richer edition, is the bible of the New York graffiti movement. Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper were among the first professionals to photograph the ephemeral murals crossing the city, destined for imminent destruction at the hands of the Transit Authority.
Chalfant, himself a visual artist, chose to isolate them as if they were works on canvas; Cooper, an accomplished photojournalist, framed them in their natural surroundings. Both developed close ties with the graffiti community, opening their studios to writers and garnering advice on where and when new work might be found. Alongside the classic documentary “Style Warswhich Chalfant co-produced, “Subway Art” helped spread graffiti culture around the world, birth local communities, and cement the style, slang, technique, and mores of the New York scene. .
Time has not diminished the beauty of the book. The chance to see so many classic pieces at an increased size is almost as exciting as the inclusion of over 70 never-before-seen photographs; a new introduction and afterword complete the story of Cooper and Chalfant’s collaboration and provide a thoughtful postscript to the train era.
Absent from this edition is the explanatory text of the original – the glossary, the photographic essay documenting the development of a piece from sketch to mural, quotes from writers – and this lack of anthropology speaks volumes. The book that helped graffiti go global has no more explanations to give. New York’s subways may be clean, but the language they once used is now universal.
Adam Mansbach is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novel “Rage Is Back” and “Go the F*** to Sleep”.