Barry McGee – Detail of mural on Houston and Bowery, New York, 2010
Barry McGee’s tag mural in New York
In August 2010 Barry McGee (aka Twist) and Josh Lazcano (aka Amaze) painted a mural on the iconic corner of Houston & Bowery in New York’s Lower East Side, covering the wall with hundreds of red tags, filling it up with the names and crews of different graffiti writers.
Revs – Page 1 of many, Subway tunnel, New York, USA
Revs in the late 1980s and early 1990s
Those who grew up or lived in New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s must have seen the famous four letters that would be seen on walls all over the place; Revs. Everywhere you looked, on trash cans, telephone booths and poles the distinct graffiti had dominated the city. Revs was at the time the most outstanding graffiti writer in the streets of New York and whether you liked it or not, his tags would be seen from the edge of the eyes, making it visible subconsciously.
A window on a long-gone New York
22-years-old at the time, Christopher Morris was working as an intern at photo agency Black Star and was determined to make something of himself as a photographer. According to the agency, the recently rediscovered photographs “provide a window on a long-gone New York, a metropolis that once pulsed with a very different energy—a frenetic, dangerous tone—than one feels in most of the city’s neighborhoods today. But even back then, as Morris’ pictures attest, Gotham remained an always fascinating and, at times, disarmingly beautiful place.”
Keith Haring’s subway art
In the early 1980s Keith Haring created hundreds of drawings in the New York subway system. He used chalk to paint on unused advertising space, which was covered with black sheets of paper. Haring was caught and fined numerous times.
Bruce Davidson – Subway, 1980
New York, at the beginning of the 1980s. A gloomy urban sprawl between hedonism and abyss. The subway, in its dilapidated state, is a hazardous place. Fires in tunnels, muggings, murder and drug trafficking are the order of the day; overcrowded wagons, frequent delays, graffiti and dirt everywhere. The journey with public transport is a nightmare. The photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) boards the train, immerses himself in the raging, rattling hustle and bustle of the city and portraits the passengers between uniformity and diversity, anonymity and intimacy, depression and inspiration. Whether lovers, musicians, homeless people, tourists or business people – in the subway and its passengers he finds the perfect metaphor for life in the metropolis with its aggression and ugliness, its hope and humanity.
This Saturday the exhibition of Martha Cooper and Nils Müller opened. The exhibition is running until the 8th of January, 2011.
On Saturday, 3rd December 2011, the photographers Martha Cooper (US) and Nils Müller (DE) will show a few works at The Gallerian INC. in Bochum, Germany. Both are well-known for taking photos of graffiti writers, especially those that paint their names on trains.
Martha Cooper (b. 1942) started out as a photo journalist and was one of the first to document the early hours of the breakdance and graffiti culture in New York. In 1984 she published the book “Subway Art” together with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant. “Subway Art” became an important milestone of the graffiti movement and one of the major sources of inspiration for aspiring European writers.
Cooper’s photography was influenced by her studies in ethnology, which tries to describe and understand different cultures. She took some portraits of writers in New York, usually when they were not painting but mostly her photos showed the painted trains themselves. New York City with its elevated subway tracks was the perfect background for some of her legendary shots.
Eventually the movement in New York faded away in the late 1980s and painting trains turned into a felony, which could get a writer jail time and thousands of dollars in fines. Graffiti spread to Europe and developed in many different directions. One is painting subways, which is considered the top prize within the international graffiti world. Subways hold such a high value because of the difficulty, the danger and risk involved in painting them. Regardless of the subway system or the country, razor wired fences have to be cut or climbed, motion sensors, cameras, and alarm systems have to be overcome. Fines and arrest are the risks to take. Subway painting has separated itself from the common graffiti community as it is a more secretive sect of the elite who push the bar and have created something which can be likened to an extreme graffiti sport. It is exactly this elite and their practices which Nils Müller (b. 1982) started to document ten years ago.
On Müller’s photos the colored trains are usually secondary, as he focuses on documenting the action of writing on trains. He shows a view into a split second of this practice from his perspective, often when things are happening so fast that there isn’t a second to stop. There is a story that is told, the skillful entering through secured emergency exits, the swift dash on subway tracks while the subway system is in service. The emotions that are captured stem from successes to failures; the tension and fear, the sense of focus and determination of the writers are clearly felt throughout his work.
Müller’s work on his Vandals series is on-going and took him to European metropolises such as Paris and London, visiting Berlin, Bucharest, Oslo and Milano but also documenting international destinations like Bangkok, Shanghai, Caracas and New York. Müller takes a variety of risks in order to document these actions and this global movement. He is, as the ones he depicts on his photos, threatened by arrest, imprisonment and heavy monetary penalties in his native Europe, while his work in other countries carries a far higher risk, where security forces are equipped with machine guns.
Müller is currently working on a follow up to his first book “Blütezeit” (Gingko Press, 2009) which will be released in early 2012.
UPDATE: photos here