Apr 6, 2014

Moving Murals: Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper's All City Graffiti Archive

City Lore Gallery

Images from the Golden Age of Graffiti in New York City

Going "All City"
From 1970 to 1989, New York City teenagers made their mark on the 600 miles of MTA steel and machinery that ran like blood vessels through the city. "All city" means that a graffiti writer has made his or her mark in all five boroughs—from Staten Island to the Bronx—sending his or her creation rolling over the tracks to be seen by people in all parts of the city. This exhibit is meant to create the ultimate all city graffiti gallery with over 825 of Henry Chalfant's photographs and Martha Cooper's portraits of the writers. 

Large murals like these are called "burners" by graffiti artists, not to be confused with "tags" which refer to the artist's signature. c) Henry Chalfant

Images for a New Underground
These young artists from the city's outer boroughs, whose work—though often dismissed as vandalism—challenged contemporary fine arts standards, and became the visual component of the hip hop culture that was born on the streets of New York City. The original graffiti murals have inspired countless graffiti artists painting around the world. However, while their influence endures, the murals and tags themselves did not last long before the city wiped the subway cars clean or rival crews painted over them. Chalfant and Cooper's patience and determination in hunting down and capturing these ephemeral masterpieces on film gives a representative cross section of some of the best work by the most talented young artists who painted New York City’s subway cars in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Here you can see a "buffed" train car that was whitewashed by the city to cover the graffiti. (c) Henry Chalfant

Spreading the Word
Shot during the “Golden Age of Graffiti” in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s combined archive is a magnum opus of visual anthropology, and one of the seminal documents of New York City popular culture in the late twentieth century. After starting separately, they both worked to document this movement, befriending artists and publishing a collection of their photographs, "Subway Art," which disseminated these murals across the globe. "Style Wars" a Sundance award-winning documentary by director Tony Silver, co-produced by Chalfant, gave voice to the artists and the hip-hop movement that inspired them. 

The documentary, Style Wars, produced by Henry Chalfant, screened continuously in the gallery.

Many of the writers represented in the Moving Murals exhibition are featured in Style Wars, a 1983 documentary on hip hop culture and graffiti in New York City, directed by Tony Silver and produce by Henry Chalfant.

Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper began photographing graffiti artists after working on a series of photographs of children playing in the streets of New York. One of the children she photographed introduced her to Dondi, describing him as "the Graffiti King." 

An artist who lived and breathed graffiti, Dondi is widely thought of as one of the most influential graffiti artists of all time, creating numerous styles and techniques that are still used today. c) Henry Chalfant

Cooper developed close relationships with the writers who, in turn, allowed her to take their portraits—giving us a glimpse into their lives and artistic processes. c) Martha Cooper

Henry Chalfant
Unlike Cooper, Chalfant photographed train murals for several years before any of the graffiti writers approached him. After seeing his photographs, writers began to call Chalfant immediately after creating a throw up, or burner, giving him precise details on where and when to find their train. His Lower East Side photography studio became a meeting place for graffiti writers, and often there would be artists from different boroughs creating another kind of "all city" gathering. 

A burner with Fred and Barney from “The Flinstones” to commemorate the retirement Ski and Hicki—two transit officers who befriended the graffiti writers during this time of heightened law enforcement. c) Henry Chalfant

Chalfant on the Stop the Bomb Car, “One of the few political messages to be put on the trains by writers who generally were apolitical. LEE painted this in 1979, a time of growing anxiety about nuclear weapons and growing public protest.” c) Henry Chalfant

Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper
Credits: Story

Photographs by: Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper

Executive Director: Steve Zeitlin

Gallery Director: Abby Ronner

Virtual Exhibition Curators: Kate Brenner & Maxine Worthy

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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