Graffiti and Martha Cooper

(Here is an article I wrote in August for our Block Association newsletter.)

Interviewing Martha Cooper, photographer, author, historical documenter, is one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve ever tried to keep up with.  She’s intense, and quick as a camera shutter. 

The first thing that happens is I’m hit in the eye with her collection of plastic camera toys lined up on shelves, bright colors against the white wall.  “This is my favorite,” she says. “It’s from the ‘50s and belonged to my little brother.”  She snaps my picture, then pulls out film that happens to be a small blackboard.  Chalk and eraser form the shutter and lens.  I jump at another camera that is actually a jack-in-the-box.  In Martha’s studio, “hit in the eye” is more than a metaphor. 

Inteviewing Martha will be fun and easy, I think. 

But before I’ve scribbled my first impression, I’m trying to keep up with her next rapid-fire show-and-tell, a piece of street art beside the hall closet.  It’s a map of the Paris Underground, she tells me, drawn by Nasty, a French graffiti artist.  She shows me how to read the letters: N-A-S-T-Y.  In the corner he wrote, “To Martha Cooper.  Paris owe you a lot.  Nasty.”  It’s signed with his tag, in his characteristic hand style.  “The map was stolen,” Martha says.

We’re in her studio adjoining the next apartment.  She bought both units when the building went co-op in the ‘80s.  “I got lucky,” she says.  “Two river-view apartments at a five-digit price.”  The editor of her next book, John Jacob, lives in the same building, one more interview-worthy resident within the boundaries of our Block Association. 

Resting in a padded box, Martha’s 20-year-old ocicat stares at me.  Pancho knows I’m different; not a photographer.  His hazel eyes are large and intense, almost a light source and two lenses.  Beside his box is the computer, open to where I see another of Martha’s collections: vintage snapshot images of women with cameras that make up her new book, Kodak Girls, to be published by Steidl Press this year. 

A phone call interrupts us.  It’s Blade (“King of Trains”), a street artist who has tagged the outside of more than 5,000 train cars and whose show is currently hanging in the Hamptons.  (“Spray can gets invited to the gallery,” The New York Times describes his exhibit.  Check him out at and  “We’ve been friends for years,” Martha says.  Two more friends, world-class graffiti artists, the Osgemeo twin brothers, have just flown up from Brazil to paint a sponsored mural on the side of P.S. 11 at W. 22nd Street between 8th and 9th.  Twenty-five years ago they learned about street art from Martha Cooper’s books and photographs.  They now have sponsors all over the world for their projects.  Their framed portrait of Martha hangs on the wall.  (It’s on a hook.  Movable.)

Throughout our conversation, we dip into her book, Subway Art.  This “Bible of the urban street art movement,” as it’s been called, went from paperback to a beautifully produced hard cover that, in 1984, sold over a half million copies.  (Other of her books: Hip-Hop Files, Going Postal, Name Tagging, Street Play.)  Her work has acquainted young artists everywhere with graffiti and two extensions of street art, hip-hop and rap.  “This art is a form of rebellion,” Martha says, “but articulate rebellion.  The artists know what they’re doing.  The work is powered by breaking rules.  I don’t focus on the art as vandalism.  I’m a fan.  I document the art form.  Graffiti is ephemeral.  People will want to go back and see what it looked like.  I’m preserving it.”

“Can you read their pieces?” I asked.  She can’t always.  There’s the “straight-letter” (readable) and the “wild style” (not).  Her take on art/vandalism interests me.  “First of all,” she says, “there are boundaries.  I don’t want graffiti on my car.  I don’t want graffiti on other art.  Graffiti on sculptures, for instance, is reprehensible.”

“What about the mailbox at the corner of 102nd and West End Avenue?” I ask.  “Two of our Block Association board members regularly paint over it.  We consider that to be a community service.”

“I don’t have a problem with art on mailboxes,” she says, “as long as people can see that it’s a mailbox.  After all, what is vandalism?  Look at all the advertising we’re forced to view every day.”  I agree that much advertising, including TV shows that post notices of upcoming programs in the corner of whatever I’m watching, insults me.  “They pay for the space,” I say, “so I guess, in our system, if they pay, they can post what they want without breaking  the rules.”

Most street artists prefer illegal rebellion; it drives their art.  However, there are “permissible walls.”  Cities will sometimes issue permits to graffiti artists.  One such project is a skate park in Pig Town, a section of Baltimore.  The names, unreadable to me—Jazi, Rove, Tawk, Ways—are familiar to Martha because she knows the people behind the names.  They stay in touch with her.  They trust her and like her photographs.  As Nasty wrote of Martha on the stolen subway map, “Paris owe you a lot,” and they all know it.   

Money talks.  Martha points out that, for artists, displaying their work is not easy.  Galleries are expensive and judgmental.  Shows are juried.  Martha documents street artists who don’t have the money to talk.  She’ll willingly follow kids, all ethnicities, genders, races, onto private property at night to record their art.  In Street Play, she preserves the wild ride of an energetic, creative boy in a go-cart he made from a police barrier.  “Street art is what they’re doing when their parents aren’t watching.”

She opens a scrapbook to show me her collection of postal stickers.  “The stickers are free at the Post Office,” she says, “and they have this big, inviting white space.  The graffiti artist paints his tag in his hand style and sticks it on an available surface.  I come along with an adhesive product, peel it off, and save it in my collection.”

“High-end aerosol art,” it’s been called.  It didn’t exist when she was growing up in Baltimore where her father and uncle owned a camera supply shop for over fifty years.  (Her mother was an English teacher.)  “I grew up with a camera in my hand,” Martha says.  Has she always photographed graffiti?  Not at all.  For years she worked for the National Geographic and other mainstream publications.  In 1975, after service in the Peace Corps, she came to New York by way of Thailand, Japan, England, and Rhode Island.  At Oxford, graduate study in anthropology opened the way for her to look at photography in a new light, with an interest in what culture means. 

City Lore, a New York City urban cultural organization, uses her photographs in their work.  Their credo, with which Martha agrees, reads, “As cultural activists, we are committed to the principles of cultural equity and democracy.  We believe that cultural diversity is a positive social value to be protected and encouraged; that authentic democracy requires active participation in cultural life, not just passive consumption of cultural products; and that our cultural heritage is a resource for improving our quality of life.”  Just underneath, in small type, I note another quotation: “Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by Martha Cooper.”

She is invited to street art events all over the world, some of which she has to refuse; she’s a working photographer.  For instance, because she has a photo assignment in Miami this fall, she can’t accept an invitation to go to Venice where street artists will be meeting and working in the medieval setting of Magazzini del Sale.  “How much can I do?” she says.  She’d like to do everything.  She’s known for the subject she documents, but people now show interest in her photographs as photographs, not merely historical documents.

On the lower level of Riverside Park, the fragment of a famous mural can still be seen.  When Charlie Ahearn directed the film Wild Style, he commissioned a mural to be filmed as it was being painted.  If you lean over the railing below 108th Street, you can still see, upside-down, the blue fragments from that famous mural.  “Charlie called me when he was filming and said, ‘Come over here.’  I went.  I still go to see what is left on the wall.  I’m always moved by the sight.”

Painted over, rained on, the ephemeral street art documented by Martha Cooper is temporary.  Her photographs, however, are permanent.


One comment

  1. Wonderful! Loved how I could see all the cameras in her apartment. And I gained dual appreciation for both her art and the art she documents.

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