Henry Chalfant along with Martha Cooper are two pioneers and the most important graffiti photo journalists of all time. They were at the forefront of documenting subway art and the birth of hip-hop culture. This past Saturday at Beyond the Streets, there was an exclusive and sold out conversation between Henry and Sacha Jenkins SHR, filmmaker, author, and creative director of Mass Appeal.
A trained sculptor, Henry Chalfant, in the early 1970’s, came to NY when others were fleeing because it was a dangerous time, but also an exciting one. It was an era of a gritty city; CBGBs, punk rock, The Ramones, and the inception of a new counterculture: Hip-Hop; all with a surrounding backdrop of a graffiti style that we all now know and love that started in the Bronx. At that time, Henry, a white man in his 30’s, was drawn to the rebellious youth of New York, who came from different cultures and backgrounds. They were kids who were marginalized and made to feel invisible and by putting their tags on trains, they changed all that. With this new visual language, they became seen all throughout the city. John Matos, aka CRASH, was quoted as saying, "What we were doing was using a language among ourselves and talking to each other." (From the NYT's article Art, Elevated: Henry Chalfant’s Archives By: David Gonzalez, Dec. 14, 2012.)
Henry, who was not a trained photographer, picked up a camera purposely to document graffiti on trains. He recognized they were names, people leaving signs and saying, "they were there." He realized with the elevated lines, he could go outside to see the trains. Henry never shot in the yards or off the line. He was more interested in getting close shots of the graffiti and then he would later stitch the photos together to see the entire train. All of the cars in his collection ran on the "King Line," the 5 and 2 lines, that covered Manhattan, north of the Bronx and south into Brooklyn.
From Top to bottom: ALL YOU SEE IS...
(1) Crime in the City SKEME, DEZ, MEAN3, 1981. (2) SKEME and DAZE, 1982. (3) CRASH and NAK, The Way Of The World, 1980. (4) SKEME, NOC AND PAIN, 1979. (5) BLUE, 3rd RAIL, ZEPHYR, 1980. (6) BilRock and REVOLT, 1980.
Throughout the 70's and 80's, Graffiti and Hip-Hop were phenomena that took over NY and Henry along with Martha Cooper was there to document it all. Before Instagram and the internet became places to see and share such photos, there was the book Subway Art and Henry’s home where writers would be able to view his massive collection of photos. It was also a meeting place where sometimes many beefs and rivals would cross paths. But first, he had to build relationships with them and shared his photos at the "Writer's Bench" at 149 Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Henry's place eventually became a home base for writers. After looking through his pictures, they would be inspired to go back out and improve their styles and techniques; it pushed them to be better at their craft. Names were written everywhere; they were given or were chosen for themselves put in and outside on the trains. They liked that the subway would carry their names from end to end, all over the city and making them "All City" WRITERS on trains.
Sold editor, Erica Stella, getting her personal copy of Subway Art signed. (Subway Art, 1984 by Co-Authors Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper. Artist pictured: (Dondi) Photo by @kristycnyc
Style Wars, a PBS documentary co-produced by Chalfant and is the definitive documentary about Graffiti and the birth of Hip-Hop (MCs, DJs and B-Boys rocked the city.) You can watch it here: Tubitv.com
SOLD OUT Crowd for a conversation with Henry and Sacha.
Sacha Jenkins published one of the earliest zines dedicated to graffiti art, called "Graphic Scenes & X-Plicit Language," He is a veteran journalist and filmmaker who recently directed "Of Mics and Men," a 4 part docuseries on Wu-Tang Clan (Showtime). Sacha has also collaborated with Henry Chalfant on a book, titled "Training Days."
Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins, Thames and Hudson, London, 2015.
Coming up for Henry is his first U.S. Retrospective at the Bronx Museum in September. For this exhibition, they're printing hundreds of his photographs, a video that includes 800 images by well-known and under-recognized writers, and a recreation of Henry’s 1980's studio. If you'd like to show support, you can click here for the Kickstarter campaign.
"A new exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts...Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987 will feature hundreds of artworks from one of the most significant documentarians of subway art. Through the lens of Henry Chalfant, the public will be able to see the now largely disappeared works of legendary subway writers, including Dondi, Dez, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Skeme, and Zephyr, and Bronx legends including Blade, Crash, DAZE, Dust, Kel, Mare, Mitch 77, Noc 167, SEEN, and T-Kid."
Henry Chalfant became a confidant to graffiti writers, gained their trust and was an urban anthropologist who captured a culture that still influences us all today. Through these photos, we celebrate subway writers, bombers, and artists of a time some of us were not able to witness. We can enjoy and be inspired by those who left their mark and laid down the foundation for our current, ever growing, and thriving art industry through the documentation of Henry Chalfant.
“That I am somebody Like you are somebody He is somebody Like I am someone.” - I Am Somebody, Grandmaster Flash