Book Review: Subway Art


Subway Art: 25th Anniversary Edition
By Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant
Chronicle Books
Review by David Chiu

I grew up in the early ‘80s when the New York City subway cars were strewn with graffiti. Even as a kid, I kind of shared the sentiments of my elders who found it an eyesore. However, over the years, I have gained an appreciation of that “art” and so has the rest of the world. Graffiti has now become a respected art form to the point of being formally exhibited, such as at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago. That would have never had happened in the 1980s, way before Giuliani, gentrification, the decrease in crime, and the now-squeaky clean Times Square.

Subway Art is a book of photographs of graffiti on subway cars and the artists (or “writers” as described in the text) behind it, They were taken by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, who back then saw something that nearly all average and hardened New Yorkers didn’t see: that subway graffiti was for these young people a way of expression and the sign of the times.

In this 25th anniversary edition of the book, we get to see a wide, panoramic view of how much art has covered throughout several subway cars such as on the #1 and #5 lines. There’s a bold, fresh, in-your-face character to the work, from being an advertisement of the writer’s name, such as the late Dundy—to even expressing social consciousness (like the futility of war in “Stop the Bomb.” There are also photographs of the writers in action—some of these kids would do their work at night, while others mugged for the cameras. What may also be surprising to most of us is that the graffiti writers were not an exclusive boys’ club—a few of them included a woman such as Lady Pink. The book concludes with new text by the authors on how the popularity of the book has affected their lives. while mentioning the current status of some of the writers, most of whom went on to pursue careers in art and other endeavors.

Going through the photographs of Subway Art triggered a flood of memories—it makes me miss that gritty, adventurous time of the city. Aside from the art, it is amazing to see or remember what life in New York was like back then. Photographs of commuters and even cops who rode these graffiti-filled subway cars showed us that even back then New Yorkers seemed unflappable. (One image features someone flipping the bird through the subway door window!).

Of course now graffiti is virtually gone on the trains except for perhaps what we dub as scratchiti (making marks on the windows using a sharp instrument) or some form of tagging on movie posters in the station. Subway Art is a reminder of how talented, energetic and brave these then-kids were. It marked an era that is now gone but, thanks to the authors of this book, will never be forgotten.

Images from Chronicle Books Web site.

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