Subway Art: The book that inspired a generation

By Guy Bird for Creative Review, Aug 2009

Guy Bird explains the enduring importance of a 25-year old photography book now re-issued

Cheesy as it might sound, ‘life-changing’ and ‘bible’ are the words that crop up most in reviews of the book Subway Art. First published in 1984, its photographs captured some of the best spray-painted art to feature on the New York subway system in the late 70s and early 80s while its revealing words made it a perfect ‘how to’ textbook for budding graffiti writers the world over. Painting a largely accurate (if sometimes slightly romantic and selective) picture of young outlaws prowling New York City at night to write their name and create art while evading police capture, rival gang beatings or even death by electrocution from live rails, the book became a sales smash – despite gaining the dubious honour of being the most stolen book in Britain in 1987. It has remained in print ever since.

The iconic poster used to promote Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign is a perfect example of how graffiti artists’ influence has permeated all aspects of society

A quarter of a century later it can genuinely lay claim to have started thousands of artistic and creative careers influencing in turn the landscape of typography, graphic design, advertising and the art market in general, as co-author and photojournalist Martha Cooper reflects in the 25th anniversary edition: “Today, artists who began as bombers [graffiti writers] have infiltrated every branch of the media and entertainment business, graphic design, web design, film, music and dance.” The iconic poster used to promote Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign is a perfect example of how graffiti artists’ influence has permeated all aspects of society. Its creator, Shepard Fairey, really isn’t exaggerating when he says: “Subway Art is one of the main reasons graffiti became a global phenomenon.”

But why was just one book so influential, and why is it still relevant enough to justify a special anniversary update? After all, other books on graffiti had published before Subway Art. The large format photography-led The Faith of Graffiti by Mervyn Kurlansky, Jon Naar and Norman Mailer published as early as 1974 and Craig Castleman’s largely academic 1982 Getting Up are two of the best – but neither managed to fully capture the excitement of the process and the impact of the finished results together in such an accessible way as Subway Art.

The large-scale artworks featured in Subway Art were often as elusive as the artists who created them. Much of the best subway art got cleaned or defaced before being widely seen. What makes Subway Art’s co-authors Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant stand out was their persistence in personally seeking out these masterpieces while still intact and then photographing them in detail (in the case of Chalfant) or in their often atmospheric urban context (in the case of Cooper). This could involve the risky process of waiting around on an abandoned rooftop in the Bronx for five hours waiting for the perfect train to pass by. Later, as they got to know the graffiti writers personally they were able to receive early tip-offs as to where and when to expect new train masterpieces to run, while also gaining valuable insights into the artists’ process and through trust, rare artist portraits too.

As Henry Chalfant told Creative Review at the summer exhibition held to celebrate the 25th anniversary edition at London’s Black Rat Press Gallery: “There’s nothing for me that will match the thrill of what we were doing back then, when it was all-new and we were getting the photos nobody else had. My father was a big game hunter and I’ve seen pictures of him smiling with a tiger. I never wanted to shoot a tiger but it felt the same way when I shot all those wonderful pieces that were brand new and fresh, painted the night before. You had to get them then too, if you got them when the windows were cleaned, you lost a lot.”

What makes Subway Art’s authors special was their persistence in personally seeking these subway masterpieces while still intact. This could involve the risky process of waiting around on an abandoned rooftop in the Bronx for five hours for the perfect train to pass by

With so few of the active subway artists having access to quality cameras, Chalfant and Cooper’s ability and willingness to ‘bear witness’ using professional photographic equipment – two decades before widespread internet access and the proliferation of more affordable digital cameras – makes their legacy even more relevant, as Cooper adds: “The photos have definitely lasted a lot longer than the pieces and without the photos what would we be talking about? Of course there are other photos out there, but one thing that both Henry and I did was to shoot the trains straight on. We were trying to get the whole piece so people could really analyse them.” 

The A3 format 25th anniversary edition offers a new chance to revisit and analyse. The book is double the physical size of the old one but keeps the original’s fold-out sections – which are now poster sized – and adds more than 70 new photographs. But according to Cooper the new version is not so much about ‘more’ but ‘different’: “Thames & Hudson already had an idea to do a smaller special edition but I didn’t want that. I was never 100% happy with the layout of the original, as I didn’t feel it showed off the photos as well as it could have. So we went back to them with an idea, ‘If we’re going to do this why don’t we do it big? Make it more of an art and photography book, don’t put in a lot of text and call it the 25th anniversary’. 

The timing just happened to be right.” The project was started in February 2008 and the resulting 128-page hardback book published in 2009 featuring many pages dedicated to a single striking photograph. Some of the photos are completely new – witness the Futura 2000 abstract whole car from 1980 given a double page spread – while others offer new insight by Cooper’s different edit of photo shoots familiar from the original, as she expands: “Once they’re full page they have a more evocative feeling. Take the train yard shot of Dez for example, in the original shot they’re smiling and laughing and looking at the camera for the photographer, but in the new book’s photo he looks like he might come up against a rival crew, so I chose this one over that.”

Text has also been kept to a simple few forewords and afterwords as Cooper adds, “if you need all that ‘how to do it’ stuff you can still buy the old book. A lot of the language is out of date and some of the things that were maybe fresh at the time seem totally ordinary and everybody knows by now, so we didn’t really need to repeat that.” To someone who fully memorised the original book’s every word, picture and detail all those years ago – even down to the type of trainers worn by the artists in specific shots – the 25th special edition still brings a freshness to its layout and content that has the genuine ability to surprise. For anyone less obsessed, Subway Art 25th is simply a superb – and good value – photography book. Essential, still.

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