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New Book Documents The Birth Of New York’s Subway Graffiti Movement

‘Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now’ is a new book by Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins capturing the early graffiti artists’ stories and artwork.

In late ’60s New York City, a local teenager began to decorate the city with what became an infamous tag – ‘Taki 183’. He might not have been the first graffiti artist in the city, but working as foot messenger allowed him to paint his mark in every corner of town. His contribution wasn’t ‘art’ in the modern graffiti sense – but he inspired a generation of street culture. These artists and their ideas began to impact musicians, fashion designers and thinkers.

As these artists began to decorate subway trains, their works carried themselves across the city.  Chalfant, (the photographer responsible for graffiti book ‘Subway Art’) has opened up his archives for this new book. Teaming up Jenkins, (founder of Hip-Hop magazine ‘Ego Trip’) the book also includes personal accounts from twelve legendary graffiti artists from the late 70s and and early 80s.

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Stash 2, Sharp, G-Man, 4 Lexington Ave Express, 1983. Sharp says: “Painting on the elevated tracks was particularly difficult – you were 40ft above the street on old, creaking wood. Sometimes a loose plank would jump up and hit you in the face. It was so scary.”

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Bil Rock, Min and Kel in the City Hall layup, 1983. Bil Rock says: “Our peak years (79-82) were the golden age of graffiti. You could get away with so much. We had our own world. The only time Jean-Michel Basquiat ever went to a train yard was with me. We bombed the entire train. Those were the good old days … before crack took hold.”

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Dez, Skeme, Pore, leaving the 3 yard, Harlem, 1982. Skeme says: “I hate to use the term “segregation”, but it’s not true that train yards were integrated. Some were black yards and others were white. I never saw a white person in the 3 yard. It may not have been intentional: there weren’t dudes barring other dudes. It was geographical if anything.”

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Henry Chalfant has photographed 800 images of subway art. The Fabulous 5’s Merry Christmas was his first. He says: “I saw Merry Christmas in the Bronx in 1977 and wanted that picture so badly! I had to go along the catwalk that track workers used. There was no way to tell when the next train would come. But I took my shots, with my knees shaking.”

Photos and captions taken via The Guardian. The book can be ordered now via Thames & Hudson and is also available as an eBook.