Coffee and Chats With Graffiti Legend Martha Cooper

If you have picked up a book about graffiti, chances are it exists solely because of this woman.

Graffiti | Martha Cooper | RF16

Interview by Samer Khudairi

Working at the New York Post in the late 70s was what influenced the creation of the seminal book ‘Subway Art’(1984)-capturing the urban art scene like no one else had done previously. We met with Martha Cooper, one of the book’s two authors, well-equipped with all her gear and a coffee in hand. As we ducked through the barn stables at Roskilde Festival to go walk around and shoot some photos of the surrounding walls, we were going to offer her a hand with her things—but quickly remembered that we were in the presence of a legend.

Martha became an instrumental figure in terms of documenting graffiti back in New York City during the 80s. By doing so, she redefined what most considered an act of vandalism into a respected art form. Not only did the finished art piece have its own visual appeal, but she was at the forefront of a graffiti lifestyle and hip hop culture which has now become a  zeitgeist for that time. Following the first notable ‘trainbombers’ and the physical performance/notably dangerous stunts required to paint some of these tags, Martha gave the public uncensored access into a subculture of raw urbanity. As early hip hop culture and graffiti gained international recognition, Martha Cooper’s ‘Subway Art’ became the unabridged bible.

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After jumping out of the graffiti world for a bit, Martha Cooper tested the waters again at an Art Festival in 2006 in New York. She was among only a few other women. Graffiti to this day is still very male dominated but ten years ago Cooper formed a pack with Lady Pink, Lady AIKO, and JR’s girlfriend. Since this initial meeting, Martha and Lady AIKO have travelled to various events throughout Japan and South Africa. Now they have joined Roskilde Graffiti Camp to document and paint at this year’s festival.

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Admitting to never have heard of Roskilde, Martha was a bit taken a back by its size. In fact, she has never been to a large festival (art or music related) ever of this kind.

“I have never been to Burning Man and I missed Woodstock. I have been kicking myself ever since. But there’s more graffiti in this festival than I’ve ever seen in comparison to some of these other events. I have been on a street art circuit, which of course has its own following and distinction, but this is amazing.”

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We walked past an artist from the UK who is now on his second wall. It is pretty common for the #rfgraff writers to do multiple pieces throughout the festival grounds, but Martha was quite surprised.

We got on a discussion about places like Wynwood in Miami, where the wall is allocated to a specific artist and pieces stay up for a bit longer, rather than the temporary panels fixed onto stables for the farm that exists on the grounds sans festival.

“Let’s talk about the word ‘permanent’. One of the reasons I like to do what I am doing is because mostly these walls are NOT permanent for some reason or another. In places like Miami, for example, the sun can fade a piece, or someone can always tag over, or the building gets torn down. And photographs then normally last longer than we do, or the piece does.”

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Her book ‘Subway Art’ is not only a historic relic but also many people’s first contact when it comes to graffiti. For me, it was like my first coloring book. But the tactility of a print seems to be getting lost in our ever mobile lives and now everyone can publish anything. Martha states,

“We have an excess of photographs.”

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But do you like Instagram as a social media platform?

‘I do. I do because I like being in control. And I like feedback. I used to write for a graffiti blog and no one would ever comment on it.’

Getting her books published in the 80s was more of a challenge. Martha had to find a publisher in England since no one wanted to touch that kind of topic in the States. Now, she tells us as writers and publishers, that it is our duty to document the artists. Whether recording the work in progress, or capturing a finished piece, it is this proof of content that helps land these artists gigs for future mural projects.

It was nice to see Martha find a home away from home at the Graffiti Camp. Check out the video below to hear a bit from her Art Talk from Friday:

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