It has taken roughly two years for this conversation to come to fruition. Despite seeing Martha Cooper around for years, we would only exchange polite greetings before going our separate ways. We often found ourselves in the same room at various art events or crossing paths while admiring the latest mural displayed on the Bowery Wall when it was still curated. However, as of this writing, the wall is uncensored, attracting active graffiti writers and up-and-coming street artists to compete for space on the billboard-sized canvas and fight for dominance like the characters in "Lord of the Flies."
But by some stroke of luck, I managed to get an hour of one-on-one time with the legendary figure herself. Knowing that this opportunity would probably never happen again, I had prepared like crazy to ensure that we made the most of every minute, and my efforts paid off as Martha shared previously unheard stories that were not mentioned in any of the articles, podcasts, or videos I had researched. I was thrilled to participate, and Martha was cool with opening up and sharing her creative journey.
Amidst the ambient fluorescent light hum and chatter of rude-ass folks carrying on in the community kitchen right outside of the microscopic conference room that I had rented from a co-working space in midtown, Martha transported me from the gritty streets of New York to the far reaches of Shanghai and Japan. Her tales of the Peace Corps days, wandering the vast landscapes of Asia, and delving into the secretive world of the Yakuza in Japan were both thrilling and enlightening. Aside from her other activities, Martha is best known for capturing the work of iconic graffiti pioneers and collaborating with Henry Chalfant to co-create the graffiti bible, Subway Art.
One of my favorite stories from our talk is when she met up with the 1Up Crew in Germany. With their audacious tags and larger-than-life artworks, this renowned graffiti crew became a subject of her lens, further emphasizing her unparalleled connection to street art and its global communities. Here is a short documentary about it: One Week with 1UP.
Here are a few insights and takeaways from our conversation:
Intuition in Artistry: While technicality in photography is essential, Martha's tales stressed that intuition plays a pivotal role. It's about being in the moment, letting instincts guide the shots.
Chasing Passion Amidst Challenges: The story behind the "Subway Art" book, with its 50 publisher rejections, is a testament to passion and persistence.
Beyond the Surface: Martha's documentation of the 1Up Crew showcased how graffiti can be both an act of rebellion and a form of self-expression.
Connection Over Clicks: Be it the playful children in Haiti or the Yakuza's mysterious world, Martha emphasized that forming genuine relationships is the foundation for genuinely impactful stories.
Martha and I are back to where we started, giving polite brief greetings in street art-filled rooms and passing like two ships. Which is totally cool; I'm not into small talk either. You learn quickly on journalistic assignments that you are not always going to make life-long friends while capturing stories because, most times, when you complete an interview, it's back to life, back to reality. I appreciate the time Martha gave me and feel privileged to have spent some time with a living legend.
Press play to listen to the actual conversation I'm referring to in the above writing.