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Documenting 70s Graffiti: Martha Cooper and Street Art of New York

“You understand the thrill when you do it and you’re afraid you might get caught. The illegal stuff is super exciting. Oh my goodness!”

– Martha Cooper

The first thing that you realise reading about Martha Cooper is that she was kind of a badass – this comes not just pertaining to the deeply fascinating fact that she once motorbiked from Bangkok to London, but also through her very thrilling career covering New York Graffiti culture of the 1970s to 80s. 

Martha Cooper revisits '80s NYC in 'Spray Nation' | Popular Photography
Martha Cooper Photography. Courtesy: Popular Photography

Her first introduction to artistic photography started while she was in Japan where she covered photographs of intricate tattoos. She worked as an intern at National Geographic until she got a permanent position at the New York Post.

Subway Art by Martha Cooper

Cooper used to be a staff photographer for the New York Post, that was until she quit her position to explore the streets of New York following the graffiti scene. Little did she know it would later on become the Bible of graffiti art. Her book “Subway Art” went on to become an important account of street graffiti, but at its initial launch, Cooper described the book to be “a big disappointment. There was no hoopla. We didn’t do any publicity. I don’t remember having a release party. I don’t remember anyone talking about the book. It just seemed like it came and went.” The book went on to sell half a million copies in the next 25 years. 

Martha Cooper: The Icon Of Street Art Photography
Martha Cooper photography. Courtesy: Art Plugged

Her journey into the graffiti scene began when she met a young graffiti artist named Edwin Serrano or He3. He3 introduced Cooper to the graffiti scene simply by just letting her tag along and click pictures. She later met DONDI, another graffiti artist of the time. It is important to note that at the time graffiti was seen as Vandalism,  immoral and lacking in artistic merit.

“After meeting Dondi I was hooked. In the process of documenting graffiti, I became interested in hip-hop as some of the writers were also rappers or breakers,”

Martha Cooper reflects on a life spent shooting subculture | Huck
Graffiti on Martha Cooper. Courtesy: Huck

After leaving her job, Cooper strictly worked as a freelancer and gave graffiti the same amount of time and research as it would require documenting any other movement in art. She would travel to various parts of the city and cover the new trains and walls being spray painted by graffiti artists and youths. “You know, most people thought graffiti was pure vandalism and not worth my time, but I believed in it,” she says. “[They were] young people that were so into their art that they would risk their lives to do it,” says Cooper. 

The legend of Martha Cooper - Forward Festival
Martha Cooper Photography. Courtesy: Forward Festival

Martha: A Picture Story is a documentary with Cooper as the subject. Even at the present day being 80 years of age, we find Cooper to have the same zeal and zest as she did back in the 70s. Her Instagram bio says “Still Snappin’. This is a mix of graff, street art, hip hop & everyday life. Welcome to my world!” and so we step into the world of graffiti that will have an everlasting stamp of the artistic photography by Martha Cooper. 


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