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martha cooper    the eyes of city walls, dance and melodies Martha Cooper was born in Baltimore (the city put back on the map by the incredible TV series The Wire). Like many other young liberal American women, she joined the Peace Corps and worked in Thailand as a volunteer. There, she bought a motorbike and travelled to London. She graduated in ethnology in Oxford and was straightaway on a plane to the Big Apple after accepting a job offer to work on the New York Post.
As well as the photographic work she carried out for the newspaper, she began to develop her own work. She started taking portrait photos of kids and youngsters she met on the streets of Brooklyn. That was until she met a child named Edwin. Edwin would tell her stories based around all the different graffiti that began appearing all over the borough. That child showed her that the characteristics of each graffiti, the clues to identifying the signature of each artist and the street movement that was beginning to take shape were all a part of a new language. An intelligent photographer with studies in anthropology and ethnography really had no other option. Cooper began to graphically document the graffiti and the culture that was springing up around it. She met the “King of Graffiti”, Dondi, a young half-Afro-American
half-Italian, and he showed her the graffiti he was doing in the underground and trains and she started photographing him. In 1984, along with Henry Chalfant, she published the now mythical book Subway Art. What was originally regarded as a collection of portrait photographs of kids has become the graphic memory of the graffiti and rap scene in the 70s and 80s borough life in New York. Nowadays, when we see Cooper’s works we see the birth and growth of graffiti as an art form, the beginnings of rap and hip-hop and also the creation of street-dance like break-dance and the such. Thanks to Martha Cooper’s imagery, we have witnessed the growth of what originally grew from the black and Latino boroughs, has undergone and changes through time and has become a movement that has eventually spread all over the world. The passing of time has also caused something quite strange to happen to Cooper’s photographs. Just as she brought the city walls and their contents to photographs, street artists have taken her work and have returned it to the streets using many different supports (graffiti, stencils, stickers...). For instance, Shepard Fairey (Obey) has made street art icons of several of Cooper’s photographs from that time.