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Relive the Glory Days of '80s Subway Graffiti With These Captivating Photos

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Bearded character with kids, by unidentified artist, 1981. (Photo: © Martha Cooper) 

In 1984, the book Subway Art, by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, was released. It documented New York’s early 1980s graffiti scene, and its impact was huge. Graffiti artists worldwide flocked to it, finding inspiration int its pages—you could almost forget how much Cooper and Chalfant initially struggled to get their work published.

In the 1970s, both Cooper and Chalfant started photographing graffiti independently. At the time, Cooper was working for the NY Post and Chalfant was an artist. They met at an exhibition of Chalfant's work in 1980, and realized that they had different but complementary aesthetics. Cooper photographed graffiti within the context of the city—sometimes waiting hours to capture the right shot—while Chalfant focused more on the artwork. They worked together with the writers to shoot the newest art. Said Cooper, “We often got messages on our answering machines telling us when new pieces were running.”

After receiving rejections from magazines for the photos, Cooper and Chalfant turned their attention to a book. American publishers deemed the subject matter too controversial, but London-based Thames and Hudson stepped in after seeing the photographs at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Since then the book has sold more than half a million copies. 

In January 2016, Thames & Hudson are re-releasing Subway Art with new photographs and a new introduction.  Take a trip back to 1980s New York with this selection from Subway Art.  

Mario Character from Nintendo’s early Donkey Kong Video game, by Son I and Rem, Manhattan, 1983. (Photo: © Martha Cooper)

Dez on lookout with a baseball bat in the 3 Yard, Manhattan, 1982.  (Photo: © Martha Cooper) 

“Midge” with yellow school bus, 1982. (Photo: © Martha Cooper) 

(Photo: © Martha Cooper)  

“Skeme Daze,” 1981. (Photo: © Henry Chalfant)

Min, Duro, and Shy 147, New Lots Yards, the Bronx, 1981. (Photo: © Martha Cooper)

Deli, by Ban2, 1981. (Photo: © Martha Cooper)

“Blade Dolores,” 1979. (Photo: © Henry Chalfant)

“World War III,” CC Yard, the Bronx, 1982. (Photo: © Martha Cooper)

Blade, 1980. (Photo: © Henry Chalfant)

Duro, Doze, Mare 139, Shy 147, Daze, Lady Pink, and crash jumping off the East River Park amphitheater, Manhattan, 1981. (Photo: © Martha Cooper)

“Duro Min Wrek,” 1982. (Photo: © Henry Chalfant)

(Photo: © Martha Cooper)

“Trap Dez Daze,” 1983. (Photo: © Henry Chalfant)

The cover of Subway Art. (Photo; Courtesy Thames and Hudson)