New York-based photographer documents four decades of street art – An iconic photographer best known for capturing street art and graffiti, Martha Cooper has documented work by Banksy (shown in the right side of the photo above), Blade, Dondi and other famous street artists. Cooper emphasizes the difference between graffiti and street art. "Street art is often large and detailed images, while graffiti is generally an ornate wild style interpretation of letters used to write words or names. One of the things I like about tagging, and hand-drawn stickers, is that finding them is sort of like a treasure hunt in New York City."
New York City (1980) -- Dondi painting in New Lots Subway Yard – Cooper says this particular photograph of Dondi shows an important milestone. It was when she was allowed for the very first time to go to the subway yards with a group of graffiti artists. "Until then I had not really understood how they had been able to paint such large pieces -- often covering an entire subway car -- in one night. Or how they could climb up to the top of the train and paint. This was the first time that I finally understood so much more."
Lower Eastside, Manhattan (1978) - Boy displays notebook where he practices his nickname, HE3, to write on walls – The boy in this photograph is showing a notebook where he practices his tag (or signature) to write on walls. Cooper says this image first inspired her to shoot photographs of graffiti artists and their work. A conversation with the boy pictured above -- known as HE3 -- first exposed her to the use of tags in graffiti. Tags are seen as an artistic interpretation of one's nickname, often used as a form of self expression and identity. HE3 also introduced Martha to famed street artist Dondi.
New York City (1983) - A conductor looks out of the window of a subway car, which has been covered with graffiti of a Nintendo character by Son1 and Rem – Before Cooper met HE3, she didn't know what tags were. "Before (HE3 showed me his notebook) I didn't really know what I was seeing when I saw graffiti on the walls. I couldn't understand what it was because it didn't seem like words. Now it seems so obvious, but back then it was not widely known that what they were writing were their 'tags' or nicknames."
New York City (1981) - A boy gestures from the window of a subway car with "my mother told me to stay home... but did I listen... Hell no!" – Although Martha appreciates the acceptance of street art nowadays, she misses the thrill of documenting it in the past. "Back then there was a whole different feeling to it -- when I started it was a very underground and illegal art form, which made it very exciting. I understood why these artists were doing it because there was so much excitement connected to sneaking in and sneaking out." As for whether or not she's had any run-ins with the law, she says, "Everybody always wants a story about the cops chasing me or something but luckily that never happened!"
South Bronx (1982) -- MIDG covered this whole car from top-to-bottom – Cooper continues to observe the growth of street art -- and still comes across new tags in her home, New York City. "Everyday I see something that I've never seen before. Even today I stumbled upon stickers featuring tags I'd never seen before."
Dakar, Senegal (2014) - South African artist Falko painting at Festigraff, an annual graffiti festival in Senegal – Dedicated to documenting the art form's intricacies, the majority of Martha's current work showcases the processes of street artists, instead of displaying the finished product. "I enjoy watching artists at work because when you see a finished wall, you don't really know what it took to get there. That's what I specialize in. I don't specialize in running around taking pictures of completed walls, I much prefer to see them in process."
New York City (2015) - Lady Aiko, from Japan (now based out of Brooklyn), stenciling a wall for Coney Art Walls in Coney Island – Although the majority of Martha's experience with graffiti and street art started off in New York City, she's since worked with numerous artists from all around the world. Above is the work of Lady Aiko, who made her name by painting walls across Asia before settling in Brooklyn. Another one of Martha's highlights from Asia is Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian artist who is currently helping to grow the art form in Singapore.
South Africa (2013) - Train with graffiti passing through Soweto – Cooper says that one of the biggest misconceptions of street art and graffiti is that it exists only as part of the culture in big cities. "People think of this as an urban art form, however there are plenty of places that I've photographed that are not urban, yet are hosting great graffiti festivals. These festivals often include artists from overseas, but what's important is that they also feature a lot of local talent as well."
New York City (2009) - Graffiti on a postal sticker, pasted (or "bombed") on top of a newspaper box – Cooper says that while murals now "appeal to the general public," graffiti tags are still too easily dismissed. "There's a tendency to say 'we love this big art piece, but we don't like this scribble over here' because there's still a lot of resistance towards the solid, hardcore graffiti."
Papeete, Tahiti (2015) - French artist Seth with his freshly painted mural in Ono'u graffiti festival – One of the most recent art festivals that Cooper documented is Ono'u in Tahiti. She credits Ono'u for casting attention to both larger forms of street art and small graffiti tags, as the festival held a graffiti contest alongside it's celebrations.
New York City (2009)- Series of stickers on newspaper box – A big fan of hand-drawn stickers, Martha Cooper admits that she often "steals stickers" in New York as a means of collecting them. Introducing us to the trend of using blank "priority mail" stickers (which are available from the post office for free) as a miniature canvas, she explains how artists often hand-draw their tags or art on the available space and proceed to stick (or "bomb") them around the city. "I even carry around an adhesive removal spray to remove and collect these stickers, and did a book called 'Going Postal' which is dedicated entirely to this art."