In 1972, New York Mayor John Lindsay declared a “War on Graffiti,” with the goal of eradicating the “plague” afflicting the subway trains. At the time, the city was facing bankruptcy and the subway system barely functioned — though not because of the application of unauthorized paint to its surfaces. Over the next 17 years, the city spent millions of dollars to keep the trains free of graffiti.
Police publicly profiled the mostly-teenage writers and labeled them sociopaths. The war turned misdemeanors into felonies and helped to usher in an era of quality-of-life offenses, zero-tolerance policies, three-strike laws.
It was a war over public space — and for the sake of context, it’s worth noting that at the time, New York City’s youth were also being arrested for break dancing in subway stations and throwing deejayed parties in Bronx schoolyards without proper permits.
It’s also worth noting that those activities form the foundation of hip-hop, the most influential subculture of the past 50 years. Graffiti was its earliest element and the first to reach maturity. What began in the late 1960s as crude marker signatures blossomed into large-scale spray-painted murals in the early 1970s. By the time 1980 rolled around, graffiti writers were shattering the alphabet into cubist abstraction, covering trains with sociopolitical commentary and inventing a visual aesthetic as unique and compelling as the sonics of hip-hop or the kinetics of break dance.
That all this was accomplished in unlit storage yards, on trains parked so close together that stepping back to evaluate the work was impossible, is miraculous. So, too, is the dedication of a generation of artists who risked life, limb and 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, lusher 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 barreling through the city, bound for imminent destruction at the hands of the Transit Authority.
Chalfant, a fine artist himself, chose to isolate them as if they were works on canvas; Cooper, an accomplished photojournalist, framed them against their natural environments. Both developed close ties to the graffiti community, opening their studios to the writers and reaping tips about where and when new work could be found. Along with the classic documentary “Style Wars,” which Chalfant co-produced, “Subway Art” helped disseminate graffiti culture worldwide, midwifing local communities and cementing the style, slang, technique and mores of the New York scene.
Time has not diminished the book’s beauty. The chance to view so many classic pieces at an increased size is almost as exciting as the inclusion of more than 70 previously unpublished photographs; a new introduction and afterword fill in the history of Cooper and Chalfant’s collaboration and provide a thoughtful postscript on the train era.
Absent from this edition is the original’s explanatory text — the glossary, the photo essay documenting a piece’s development from sketch to mural, the quotes from writers — and that lack of anthropology speaks volumes. The book that helped graffiti go global has no more explaining to do. The subways of New York may be clean, but the language they once bore is universal now.
Adam Mansbach is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novel “Rage Is Back” and “Go the F*** to Sleep.”