Spray Nation: A New Book of Iconic 1980s New York Graffiti Photographs by Martha Cooper

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You can remember it if you are over a certain age. Graffiti wasn’t very nice in the 1950s and 1960s. It was mostly ugly; offensive words were written everywhere with no artistic value.

A graffiti revolution began in New York’s subways in the 1970s, when young people began spray-painting cheerful, colorful cartoons that would quickly spread across the world, changing the art scene forever.

Street art has been widely popularized by artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in new and fresh ways like the world has never seen before. Graffiti quickly became the iconic symbol of this generation, with the photographer Martha CooperSnapshots capture it all. Now his best work is shared again in a new book, Pulverize the nationwhich accurately depicts the exciting street art scene of 1980s New York.

At that time, Cooper had unparalleled access as one of the few adults allowed into the secluded scene that brought together black, Latino, and white teenagers. The book convincingly captures the energy, intrigue and artistic anarchy of this tumultuous time.

Not only are the children’s stories compelling, but Cooper’s own story is too. At nearly 40, she quit her job as a photographer at the New York Post in 1980 to document the heyday of subway graffiti.

She ventured into the rail yards at night when no one was looking and quietly climbed between the huge steel cars. Considering the 600 volts of live electricity that passed through the line’s third rail all day, his activities could be described as “death defying.”

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ART IS THE WORD from ALIVE 5, 1981
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CAR WASH by CEY, 1982

Now in the late 70s, Cooper still travels the globe documenting the current state of street art and graffiti, an endeavor that was first sparked by co-creating subway art with Henry Chalfant in 1984.

However, its most notable treasure is its historical archives from the 1980s in New York. Thousands of 35mm Kodachrome slides depicting intimate portraits, action shots, walls, subway cars and gallery openings are included.

In the foreword to the photo book by Martha, the publisher Roger Gastman writes that his photos are “like that crazy high school yearbook”.

“As a result, Cooper is the go-to graffiti artist, enthusiast, collector and researcher. They haven’t had the opportunity to visit his studio and contemplate his decades of incredible work – it’s simply breathtaking. However, she occasionally pulls out another treasure, and we all scratch our heads in wonder: What else does Martha have?

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CEY with his sketches at the Graphiti Productions Inc. gallery, 1982
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Unknown writers, 1981-1982

Roger has a keen interest in the subject as a collector, curator and creator of beyond the streets, an organization that produces large-scale street art exhibitions. As a result, he was perfectly suited to sifting through thousands of slides to select the best photos for the book.

“I knew his work, the context of the photographs, and was no stranger to book set projects,” he adds. And although it took longer than expected, it was worth it in the end. “The project is better now thanks to the extra time we put into it. We battled with many different formats and even went through the process from start to finish. There are hundreds of breathtaking long-term images, most of which will be seen for the first time.

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BAC with his black book, Lower East Side, 1982

The book features photographs of luminaries including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Patti Astor, Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, DJ Kay Slay aka Dez, Dondi, Lady Pink, Iz the Wize, Daze and others. Essays by Roger Gastman of Brooklyn Street Art Inc., Steven P. Harrington of Brooklyn Street Art Inc., journalist Miss Rosen, Jayson Edlin aka TERROR161, and curator Brian Wallis are included.

And there may be even more on the horizon. “I don’t think this project will be the last to use Martha’s archives,” adds Roger. “His papers are so thick; they’re like a graffiti artist’s account of events, with a very particular take on how I saw 80s graffiti through the eyes of Martha Cooper.

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Graffiti Hall of Fame by VULCAN & TNT CREW, East Harlem, 1981
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Martha Cooper, 1982. Image courtesy of Martha Cooper

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