In the spring of 1978, a few months before I left Dallas to move to New York City, my senior English teacher, Jim Lloyd, took me aside to warn me of the dangers that lurked up north.
Most of what he told me was the familiar claptrap about how the insidious racism of the North was far worse and more pervasive than the overt racism of the South. I was hearing this a lot and had learned to take the path of least resistance and nod agreeably rather than point out that both regions had no shortage of either. Then Mr. Lloyd finished with a remark that mystified me. “Watch out for that graffiti!”
Maybe Mr. Lloyd was hip to something that would become a worldwide movement in public art. (Without it, we wouldn’t have Shepard Fairey and his iconic image of President Obama.) The work of the early graffiti movement is now beautifully depicted in Subway Art, a 25th anniversary edition of the book that in 1984 introduced graffiti to a large audience.
Almost everyone who lived in New York City in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s had a graffiti moment. My moment came one evening during my first month as a New Yorker; I was heading back uptown to campus and transferring to a local train on an Upper West Side platform. The train barreled into the station with the usual deafening roar; it was a big, ugly, gun-metal gray tube, but suddenly one of the cars jumped out at me. It was spray-painted in bright fluorescent colors with blocky letters, and to the side were images of cartoon characters. I stood gaping in awe. To that point, I had only experienced graffiti solely as vandalism, the messy scribbles that made the interiors of subway cars that much more drab. This was totally different; it was public art as mass transit.
Before long, I began making any excuse possible to leave campus in the hopes of finding more graffiti. After about a month of looking at cars during my travels, a visual vernacular took shape. Most of the cars were self-advertisements—a public art iteration of the Operation PUSH mantra, “I am Somebody.” Bright colors were the norm, cartoon and comic-book references were common, and there were occasionally brief texts. It didn’t take a cultural critic to see that these artists, whoever they were, had advanced some concepts of Pop Art (Andy Warhol had his soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein his Donald Duck). And in retrospect, the texts certainly had a connection to Jenny Holzer, who was just starting to get her work into Soho galleries.
I wanted to pursue these odd bursts of public art, but backed off when some of New York native pals told me that the artists wandered into the subway tunnels to find idle cars. Dirty, rat-infested, electrified subway tracks? No thanks. I settled for getting my art from pristine museums and galleries and occasionally on subway platforms.
Fortunately, photographers Martha Cooper, a photojournalist for the New York Post, and Henry Chalfant, a sculptor with a sidelight in photography weren’t daunted. They, too, had been impressed with graffiti artists and began documenting what they saw. They fell in with a variety of crews, and Cooper shot them in action. Chalfant took magnificent photographs of their trains in motion. Individually, they shopped book proposals and found the American publishing industry unreceptive, so they pooled their resources and shopped the idea abroad. The result, Subway Art, was published in 1984.
The original Subway Art was a great primer on the graffiti movement, but the new one is much more. The new book, 11 x 16, dwarves its magazine-sized predecessor and offers brilliant and rich photographs of the subway cars and their painters. In many ways, it’s a period piece of New York City from the same era captured by such films as Manhattan, The Last Days of Disco and Summer of Sam, but it’s a portrait of a completely different milieu.
The book is a valuable document if only because these paintings are long gone. The city viewed even the most artistic expressions purely as vandalism, and during the ‘80s, in an attempt to exert tighter control over the trains, the transit system began washing them more often, guarding the subway yards more aggressively and prosecuting artists.
Fortunately, and in large part due to the first publication of Subway Art, the graffiti movement spread worldwide. Subway trains exist in only a few locales, but public canvases where creative artists can inject their voice into the visual discussion are everywhere, and inspired by the artists featured in Subway Art, ambitious painters and artists around the world began expressing themselves. Fairey credits the book with inspiring a movement, and it isn’t hard to draw a line from the painted car I saw 31 years ago and Fairey’s Obama/Hope image. I’m glad I took Mr. Lloyd’s advice.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.