A book, a day: Spray Nation by Martha Cooper
Culled from the extensive archives of one of the most renowned graffiti photographers of all time comes a remarkable collection of previously unpublished images of New York’s graffiti scene in the 1980s. Aptly titled “Spray Nation” the new volume features the work of Martha Cooper aka the trailblazer photographer who has documented the art on NYC’s skin since the 1980s and the editing skills of Roger Gastman to reintroduce the graffiti tribe of the metropolis in all its glory.
Cooper has spent decades immortalizing art that is often overlooked, and usually illegal. Her first book, 1984’s “Subway Art” — a joint project with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant — is affectionately referred to by graffiti artists as the “graffiti bible.” For “Spray Nation” (published by Prestel Verlag) Cooper and Gastman “pored through hundreds of thousands of 35mm Kodachrome slides, painstakingly selecting and digitizing them.”
“The photos range from obscure tags to intimate portraits, action shots, walls, and subway cars painted inside and out. They are accompanied by heartfelt essays celebrating Cooper’s drive, spirit, and singular vision. The images capture a gritty New York era that is gone forever. And although the original pieces (as well as many of their creators) have been lost, these resplendent photos feel as immediate and powerful as a subway train thundering down the tracks.”
Cooper “found value in what we were doing, her documentation a testimony possessing such extraordinary evidentiary value in the case against us just being poor, truant, rowdy vandals. I’m glad she came along” SKEME explains.
“Martha was the first adult that really took notice of what we were doing,” says Cey Adams, graff pioneer and founding creative director of Def Jam. “She documented all the early work and she never asked for anything. She just showed up and took photographs. She traveled to different parts of the city. At the time I was too young to appreciate what it meant to have someone documenting your career at such a young age. She really cared. It was one of the earliest creative relationships I had, and I didn’t even know I was having it.” The publication is a testament to Cooper’s “pure, unadulterated love and mutual respect for the art of getting over, its practitioners, and the communities in which it lives.”
“Martha’s photos [are] like this crazy high school yearbook,” writes collector, curator, founder of Beyond the Streets and editor of the publication Gastman in the foreword to the book. “As a result, Cooper is who every graffiti writer, fan, collector and researcher wants to come and see. Most of them have not had the privilege of going to her studio and seeing the great amount of work she has amassed over the years — it’s truly awe-inspiring. But every so often, she pulls out yet another gem where we all scratch our heads and think, Oh shit, what else is Martha holding?”
The photobook compiles hundreds of Cooper’s never-before-seen photographs of New York City graffiti in the first half of the 1980s, “splashed predominantly across and inside subway cars and stations, but also other aspects of the urban jungle: buildings, signposts, and metal railings. Her photographs capture the distinctive and iconic style of underground graffiti at the time – in-your-face colourful, intricate and calligraphic – which has gone on to inform movements and styles across the world.”
The book features images of luminaries including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Patti Astor, Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, DJ Kay Slay aka Dez, Dondi, Lady Pink, Iz the Wize, Daze, Crash, and others. It also includes essays from Roger Gastman, Brooklyn Street Art’s Steven P. Harrington, journalist Miss Rosen, Jayson Edlin aka TERROR161, and curator Brian Wallis.
Spray Nation: 1980s NYC Graffiti Photographs by Martha Cooper, Edited by Roger Gastman © Prestel Verlag, Munich · London · New York, 2022.