Hiphop Kunst Sakprosa

My interview with Martha Cooper

Lørdag 7. september er det igjen klart for gatekunstfestivalen Nuart i Stavanger, og blant årets mange gjester finner vi fotografen Martha Cooper.

Hun er best kjent for sitt arbeid med graffitibibelen Subway Art, som hun ga ut i samarbeid med Henry Chalfant i 1984. Her er mitt 2009-intervju med henne.

Fram til 20. oktober er det Nuart i Stavanger, festivalen som siden 2001 har opparbeidet seg internasjonal status som gatekunstens svar på Øyafestivalen. I år flyr The Telegraph, The Independent, Esquire og en rekke andre internasjonale medier inn til Stavanger for å få med seg internasjonale navn som kinesiske Dal East, polske M-City og norske Strøk.

Men årets mest prominente gjest må like fullt være Martha Cooper, som i 1984 ga ut fotoboken Subway Art i samarbeid med Henry Chalfant – en dokumentasjon av graffitimiljøet i New York rett før myndighetene slo ned på uttrykksformen.

På den tiden bugnet slett ikke bokhandlene av praktbøker om graffiti og gatekunst, nei faktisk måtte de to fotografene til England for å finne et forlag som viste interesse for ideen. Her er mitt 2009-intervju med Cooper i sin helhet.

ØH: Do you have a favourite picture from the book?

MC: My favorite photo is the one on the cover of the US edition, of Dondi between the cars painting the train. I like it because it not only shows how writers were able to paint whole trains by bracing themselves between the cars, but also how intensely they worked. That picture was taken at daybreak after spending the night in the yards.

ØH: What made you focus your work mostly on subway trains, and what were you missing out on because of this?

MC: Graffiti on trains was the most challenging to paint and also to photograph. Anyone can take a photo of a wall. In fact I did take pictures of pretty much any interesting graffiti I saw – tags, walls, trucks, signs whatever. I have huge files of unpublished photos.

ØH: How important do you think your book, and movies like Style Wars and Wild Style was in spreading graffiti around the world?

MC: Very important. I doubt graffiti would have spread without them.

ØH: How controversial was your book? You had to go to England to get it published.

MC: At the time, most US publishers were based in New York City. Although some editors admired our photos, no publisher wanted to take on the book because graffiti was generally abhorred.

ØH: The art world and the media really discovered graffiti in the early 80’s. At the same time the authorities in New York started to crack down on the painters hard around 83, as I understand. Was there a connection between the rising popularity and the reactions?

MC: Possibly the MTA felt embarrassed by the favorable publicity about galleries, but I don’t know that for sure.

ØH: Or do you feel that graffiti became a scapegoat in New York’s fight against crime, a easily identified enemy with highly visible results when working to decrease it?

MC: That’s probably true. People felt assaulted especially by the tags on the inside of subway cars and felt the city was out of control. Removing graffiti was a way of assuring the general public that they weren’t living in a lawless society.

ØH: What do you regard as the year when graffiti was at its biggest in New York, and why?

MC: I’m not a graffiti historian.

ØH: The art world had a hectic and confusing relationship with graffiti. From Henri’s own exhibition at OK Harris Gallery in 1980 through success stories like Basquiat and the panned “Post-Graffiti” exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1985. How would you sum up the relationship between graffiti and the art scene?

MC: Galleries want to be hip, but the bottom line is they want to make money from art sales. Most galleries are willing to embrace graffiti on canvas or other surfaces they can sell.

ØH: Did you see yourselves as documenting a culture that would soon disappear? And do you think modern graffiti would’ve died, if not for the hip-hop books and movies of the early 80’s?

MC: I always thought I was documenting a phenomenon particular to New York City and one that  would die out. I didn’t foresee the spread of NYC style graffiti worldwide. Yes – I think books, magazines, newspapers and films were responsible for its spread. Remember – there was no internet.

ØH: What are the major challenges for writers, photographers, and film makers who want to document subcultures that are both dangerous and illegal?

MC: You have to decide whether your photos are going to be worth the risks, costs and time involved. «Worth» is something everyone has to figure out for themselves.

ØH: How would you sum up New York graffiti after your book was published? I understand that the rest of the 80’s are seen as graffiti’s last years, and that especially subway graffiti more or less disappeared after 1989. What about the 90’s and 2000’s, is graffiti today more alive in other places of the world?

MC: I am not a graffiti historian.

Av oyvindholen

Father, journalist, author, and journalist in D2/Dagens Næringsliv (www.dn.no).

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