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In the world of graffiti, Martha Cooper is a cult figure. She’s an old skool photog who, along with Henry Chalfant, documented the fast-changing world of New York graffiti and unintentionally helped make it sexy and digestible for public consumption. Her book Subway Art, co-authored with Chalfant, kickstarted the graff book genre that has ballooned (for better or worse) into a full-blown field that witnesses hundreds of books published a year. The fame of Subway Art is such that last year an attractive over-sized 25th Anniversary version hit bookshelves.
Since the influence and impact of that important book in well-know, I chose to focus this review on two more recent works by the graff photography veteran which were published in that last few years, Tag Town: The Evolution of New York Graffiti Writing and Going Postal.
Tag Town: The Evolution of New York Graffiti Writing (Dokument, 2007)
Unlike Subway Art, Tag Town tackles one of the least attractive aspects of graffiti, the tag. If the trains of New York, with their full car images inspired awe through their ambition, creativity and good ol’ fashioned chutzpah, tags are predominantly dull and uncreative. Looking back, tags appear mostly to be of design or anthropological interest but rarely beautiful. Having said that, I admit that some tags that veer towards the calligraphic can be impressive but very few of those exist in this book. What you realize by looking through the pages of Tag Town is that only a few decades ago most of the graffiti on the streets of New York was uglier and cruder than what we see today.
Cooper’s photos are good but they can feel cold. These snapshots are often artless (some are lovely) but so are their subjects. There are some great records of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, but big names don’t guarantee good work — some of the pieces by these guys are awful. Basquiat is the exception. His work, unlike almost anyone else, took the raw energy of the vandals’ visual language and transforms it into something completely new. His images, unlike Scharf’s, don’t mimic pop culture but collide drawing and writing in a way that makes it difficult to decide where one begins and the other ends.
There are oddities in the book, particularly the forward by Tobias Barenthin Lindblad, who seems ill suited to set the stage for the photos and writing inside. He makes claims with little fact, like “Subway graffiti is akin to an early version of the internet.” Or “Tags are a product of a highly developed culture: a society that has mastered written language.” Huh?
Lindblad’s introduction aside, the writing in Tag Town is often stronger than the images. I particularly liked the quote by artist Claes Oldenburg, who in 1973 told New York Magazine:
You’re standing there in the station, everything is gray and gloomy, and all of a sudden one of those graffiti trains slide in and brightens the place like a big bouquet from Latin America. At first it seem anarchial — makes you wonder if the subways are working properly. Then you get use to it. The city is like a newspaper anyway, so it’s natural to see writing all over the place.
Where the book is truly valuable is near the end, where we find a cache of early writing about the nascent art form, including an article by Patricia Conway from 1973, one by David McClelland that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1975, and two by Richard Goldstein that both hail from the same era. These archival documents alone are worth the price of the book.
Going Postal (Mark Batty, 2009)
If the strengths of Tag Town are obvious, Going Postal is not much of a photography or art book but feels destined to be a source for designers looking to the “street” for inspiration. This small book has little text and lots of alright pictures and is part of a trend in the street art book market that appeals to the field’s fan culture, while doing little to illuminate anything.
In 2002, I remember meeting a teenage graffiti aficionado from England, who, upon landing in New York, rushed to the closest postal office to grab a pile of postal stickers. At that time, the culture of the postal sticker was well established in the world of grafitti, and he was able to tell me the advantages of each country’s postal stickers and when each postal service changed their adhesives. Yet, none of the works in the book date further back than a few years. Flipping through the book, you can’t help but feel that Cooper’s images show us a very incomplete picture of a much larger story. Unlike her pivotal images from an earlier era, these recent shots seem less central.
There is also a chance that Going Postal may prove to be a more interesting book in the future than it is today. As time passes, and as the material culture of our cities shift to include new mediums, the postal sticker culture may come to be seen in the same way we look at Victorian silhouettes or collages, which is to say as a visual curiosity.
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Links of interest:
- a 2008 interview with Martha Cooper about Tag Town on Fecal Face;
- images from Tag Town on the Dokument Press website;
- Martha Cooper on Wikipedia;
- Cooper’s blog posts on 12ozProphet;
- a limited preview of Subway Art on Google Books; and
- a video interview with Martha Cooper on On-Point.be.