Author: Charlotte Bearn

The Influence of Martha Cooper

As graffiti art now appears in exhibition spaces alongside “gallery art” we thought we’d take a look at an influential character in the graffiti art scene and remember some of the steps it took to get it from the walls of the streets into the galleries and onto the walls of art collectors. As a young photographer Martha Cooper documented the beginnings of graffiti in a way that had never been done before and in turn totally transformed the way we look at street art inspiring many artists still today.

Back in the 70s and 80s when graffiti was emerging, tagging was the primary form of artistic expression, it was quick and cheap and allowed kids to express their individuality and make a mark on their territory. Subway trains were adorned with tags from individuals seeking to be the best or “The King” by creating the most widely spread or imaginative tag, to gangs asserting their dominance. Young people with limited supplies and limited money were able to express themselves with a few cans of paint and some adapted nozzles.

By using the subway trains, taggers could cover a huge geographical area as the trains passed from one side of the city to another from the Bronx through Manhattan to Brooklyn. In this way they gained notoriety as their artwork was viewed all over the city and as it became more popular, the unconventional movement was born. As graffiti was, and still is, largely illegal the artists had to overcome many hurdles accessing the trains, working often at night and in dangerous positions. Martha began photographing them as part of an anthropological study on “Street Play” and over time earned their trust and was allowed privileged access to their world never previously seen in such detail. She formed close friendships with some of them in particular Dondi, Futura and Lady Pink and was eventually able to accompany them and document them at work capturing the perilous nature of aerosol art.

The development of simple tags into more elaborate “Wildstyle” lettering began. Overlapping fonts and symbols often incorporating other intricate designs were mainly done freehand so the artists could demonstrate highly skilled use of the spray can in a way that was difficult to replicate or copy. There are many artists today such as RETNA, Revok, Chaz Bojorques, Ben Eine and Saber who began making their mark this way and now command high prices for their artwork that is collected all over the world.

Martha met Henry Chalfont who had been documenting the actual trains daubed with spray paint and together they produced “Subway Art” combining Martha’s study of the graffiti writers and Henry’s panoramic photos of the trains and their tags or “burners”. The book, which has since been a huge influence on many, was the catalyst and affirmation that this existed as an art form to be explored and developed. Many very successful artists today still cite this book as a one of huge importance and inspiration. Shepherd Fairey, for example, has used her photographic images selecting several figures to create a poster called “Defiant Youth” just few years ago.

She has never seen herself as an artist in her own right but refers to her work as social documentation, calling herself an ethnographer specialising in art and anthropology rather than a photo journalist or artist. Her photos have earned her worldwide acclaim and now her work appears in many publications such as National Geographic and Art News.

If you would like further information of available works or to enquire about other works and artist’s we have in the gallery please call +44 (0)1273 724829 or email

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