Serendipity and the happy (or not-so-happy) accident can have remarkable and often unintended consequences that can spark major changes and movements in history.
In 1977, a power blackout in New York triggered widespread looting and fires. The spoils from the looting included large amounts of spray paint and electronic equipment. And so began street art and the rise of hip-hop. If you want to trace different origins for the growth of these two styles, this was also the year that Henry Chalfant started to photograph the subway art that had started appearing, becoming a first-hand witness to what was happening.
In 1980, a subway strike provided an opportunity for the graffiti artists to work undisturbed on stationary canvases (let’s call them) and thus the movement burgeoned. Like I said, serendipity and happy accidents.
You’re entitled to ask, “What took you so long?” This book is, after all, appearing more than thirty years after the event. That, I think, is explained by a general rediscovery of the period around the early 1980’s, reassessments of bands such as Blondie and The Ramones – what was once current affairs that come and go are just far enough off to start being history.
But let’s not cavil (he said, having cavilled). Let’s evaluate the book. Well, the first thing is that, although it includes a lot of Chalfant’s photographs, it’s not a showcase of them (see 1984’s Subway Art for that). Rather, it’s an account of the work of some dozen artists working in the medium of spray paint on, um, unofficial surfaces. This is a dynamic form and the book attempts to capture some of that, with first-hand descriptions by the artists of their backgrounds and how they work. It’s not exclusively street slang, but they are lively stories excitingly told and they span subway art from its inception to the present day.
The blurb says that the book “captures all the raw, explosive creativity of the late 70’s and early 80’s … a captivating and inspiring book for all”. And it is all that, though I suspect that, like a lot of grassroots movements, you had to be there to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, it’s something that’s worth documenting while the voices can be recorded live and this is a thorough account that avoids the trap of being over-academic about it all.
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