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Martha Cooper
Photography Martha Cooper

The woman who captured NYC’s graffiti gangs

Since the 70s, photographer Martha Cooper has been capturing street art’s growing presence and importance all over the world

Legendary photojournalist Martha Cooper started documenting the New York graffiti scene in the 70s, when it was still considered an ‘underground phenomenon’. She was introduced in the late 70s to Dondi, one of the most significant graffiti artists of the movement and the ‘king’ of one of New York’s graffiti gangs, the CIA – in which kids would ‘write’ together, rivalling other gangs for popularity and fame. After this Cooper’s interest in the illegal graffiti scene and ‘trainbombing’ – covering trains with graffiti – was unstoppable. A complete novelty at the time, her photographs travelled the globe in the form of Subway Art, first published in 1984, inspiring many to join the growing culture of plastering buildings, trains and other public places with art.

While often seen as a controversial art form, and one that is heavily criticised and seen as vandalism, Cooper is in two minds. “It is vandalism,” she says “So many people ask me ‘is it vandalism or is it art’? I'm like, ‘it's both’ – there's nothing that says it can’t be both. It can be ugly and interesting too.” Be it vandalism or not, Cooper’s early work undeniably tapped into a monumental part of New York history, allowing her to pursue graffiti and street art all over the globe – from Tahiti to Thailand, documenting these escapades on her Instagram.

Opening 5 February at London’s Stolen Space Gallery, Martha Cooper: Life Work, will include an extensive amount of her work including a never-before seen ‘Dondi train’ – a photograph of a train bearing the artist’s name in his signature style. “I think it’s important to show that Martha isn’t just a photographer but an artist,” says Monica Norse, the exhibition’s curator. “There's so much behind the photos, she's changed people's lives, so many people started doing graffiti because they saw Subway Art and it opened up the world of graffiti and self-expression for them.” Cooper is also displaying two photographs, featuring Elle and Lady Pink – two veteran female graffiti artists, at A Moment in Time, an all-female street art exhibition currently on at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

We asked Cooper share some of her close to 40 years of knowledge and to discuss the difference between graffiti and street art and her infamous relationship with one of the scene’s icons.

What do you think the difference between ‘graffiti’ and ‘street art’ is?

Martha Cooper: I consider graffiti and street art to be separate cultures and though there is a big overlap, graffiti to me means letters. Graffiti was a super underground culture when I first started – I (and most people) didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know the most basic things, like that kids were writing their names. In New York you would see a bunch of legible but unintelligible letters on the wall and you wouldn’t know what it meant, so when I found out it was kids names, it was a revelation and that's what drew me into the culture. Now I think everybody knows that and the culture is very much above ground. Graffiti has it's own set of rules and aesthetics, and basically spray cans and markers are the tools used, and the techniques are different than street art.

The main crossover between the two is the appropriation of public space – they are both taking public space and putting their work on it.

Why do you think graffiti is important?

Martha Cooper: I think it puts art into the hands of the masses by making it available to everyone – as you can see there are way more artists than anyone could have ever imagined. It’s also an antidote against the advertising that's covering the city, there's so much commercial advertising. At least with graffiti you know that the artist had to be there physically to put up their art. There's not much stuff in the city that was done by hand and a lot of urban areas are so monochromatic. The best pieces have a sense of humour and they're appropriate – not all of the walls are successful and the unsuccessful ones tend to get painted out quickly.

How does illegality influence graffiti as an art form?

Martha Cooper: I don't think that graffiti would exist as it does if it weren't for the efforts to eradicate it. I think that's partly what inspires it and makes it more interesting, it wouldn't have the same impact as a legal act.

What got me into it was the illegal part: the fact that these kids were risking a lot to do their art and that they weren’t getting paid for it, they weren't thinking that they were going to make money, they were doing it for each other. To me, that was fascinating – it was dangerous, they were risking getting caught and they were risking their lives on the rails of the trains. Graffiti artists are also storytellers, they can sit around and talk for ever about all the times they were chased from the yards and all the adventures that they've had.

How is graffiti changing in the age of Instagram?

People are voting on Instagram now. You just search for your name in the hashtags and you can see if people like it or don’t like it. In London I took this photo of graffiti by someone called ‘Hdog’ and looked up their hashtag. I saw that they also paint on trains, so I was happy about that because I don’t want to get too far away from my roots.

It seems like a bit of a boys’ club – are there many female artists out there?

Martha Cooper: Graffiti was always a guy thing, so it was really hard for someone like Lady Pink to break in, but she had the right personality. There were always a few women, like Barbara 62 and Eva 62 tagged and Duster Lizzie wrote on trains.

Lady Pink was part of a group of writers that I met, so I just came across them one at a time. In 2004 when Hip Hop Files came out, I travelled around Europe and began to see female dancers, so I decided to do We B*Girls. I then met a lot of girl graffiti writers. I partly wanted to do that book because I felt I hadn’t spent enough time looking for the women artists and that I should've tried harder to include them. It's great to see that they're being included, I've been to three or four different festivals that are all-female. I went to one in Ecuador that Toofly organised, Warmi Paint and B-Girl Be in Minneapolis.

How did you get Dondi to let you take all those photographs of him?

Martha Cooper: I was working for the New York Post and I was interested in kids who were playing with toys that they made themselves. When I first met Dondi, he had clipped an article from the New York Post that had a picture of his piece in the background and he had pasted it into his sketchbook. So he knew I wasn’t a cop and that I also could get him some publicity, some fame which was always the goal of graffiti writers. So that was my entry to Dondi, he recognised my name from the paper.

The brand new third edition of Subway Art is available now – published by Thames & Hudson – pick up your copy at the Stolen Space Gallery, 5 – 28 February 2016