“Graffiti was a ‘voice’. It began as just fun, but it became more than that. They began to understand it as a statement that they were somebody in this city, that they mattered in this large, anonymous city. And they began to think in terms of who owned public space.”
Henry Chalfant began his career as a sculptor in the 1970s and continued to work in the fields of photography and film in order to do extensive research on Hip Hop culture and graffiti creating a comprehensive archive. Currently living in New York, Chalfant continues to work on documentary films. The images he immortalized during the period in which leading graffiti masters such as Dondi, Futura, and Lee Quinones painted subways, constitute the basis of the three most important sources behind graffiti today: The Style Wars documentary he brought to life with director Tony Silver in 1983, his book Subway Art co-authored in 1984 with Martha Cooper, and Spraycan Art he co-published with James Prigoff in 1987.
At a time when he was bored in the sculpture studio, Chalfant was intrigued by the thrilling aesthetic of calligraphic graffiti works, which he realized were temporary. He thus focused on subway graffiti, which now comprises a significant portion of his archives. Through the use of multiple-frame panoramic, he was able to capture the entirety of the trains, which were exhibited at the OK Harris gallery in New York in 1980. The artist continued his work about the graffiti artists without any interaction for a while and notes it took quite some time to gain their trust.
Henry Chalfant states that although this art form is displayed at galleries and museums today, he prefers the dynamism and thrill he captured on trains in early days of the graffiti: “And now its the internet, magazine, forum and all over with people painting from city to city which is exciting but I don’t feel a compulsion to document it –they’re taking good pictures themselves.”
Click for more information on the Language of the Wall: Graffiti / Street Art exhibition.