‘I Have to Get That’: How Henry Chalfant Became a Graffiti Ambassador

The artist’s images, a important act of urban historic preservation, are on belief at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

CreditHenry Chalfant/Artists Rights Society (ARS), Unusual York; Jackson Krule for The Unusual York Occasions

When Henry Chalfant arrived in Unusual York Metropolis from suburban Pittsburgh in 1973, as an aspiring sculptor, he found a residing teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. This became as soon as “Ford to Metropolis: Tumble Dead” Unusual York. However amid the turmoil a brand unusual fabricate of art work making became as soon as taking shape — one that took up dwelling where it may maybe maybe probably maybe maybe, which became as soon as mostly in each single residing.

As a typographical language, graffiti became as soon as peaceable raw, a brand unusual extra or less American expressionism rooted in the volatility of avenue existence, largely executed by kids residing on the city’s margins. The pressing scrawls of names, crowding one but any other for visible dominance, became as soon as a fabricate of branding as self-option. Within about a years, sorts became increasingly extra baroque, whole flanks of subway vehicles sheathed in florid top-down murals, hurtling the city’s neglected periphery into its pulsing middle.

Mr. Chalfant, now 79, credits one such half, a Lee Quiñones burner from 1977, for permanently fascinating his attention. “I came up to the Bronx, and I saw two vehicles painted by Lee and the Improbable 5 crew,” Mr. Chalfant mentioned in a most fresh interview. “And I thought, Oh my god, I undoubtedly gather to rep that.” And he did, though it took 10 images. “From there I knew I became as soon as going to behold this out,” he added. “I discovered the admire between what I became as soon as doing as a solitary studio artist and what I clearly wished in my existence, which became as soon as extra engagement on this planet, and here’s how I discovered it.”

For the next seven years, Mr. Chalfant photographed the trains. And by the purpose he stopped taking pictures, round 1984, he had gathered a body of labor thought to be to be the definitive doc of graffiti tradition in Unusual York. Now those images are the sphere of the exhibition “Henry Chalfant: Artwork vs. Transit, 1977-1987,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His educate panoramas, some blown up to educate car-dimension, had been assembled here alongside his avenue images of park jams and wall works, and a chain of archives and gloomy books that recreate his SoHo studio.

It’s an ethical homecoming for Mr. Chalfant’s first United States retrospective — the positioning of noteworthy of Unusual York graffiti’s innovation, where many graffiti artists lived and where the bulk of Mr. Chalfant’s imagery became as soon as produced.

The show mask’s title, “Artwork vs. Transit,” is a reference to the originate hostility of the city’s officials toward what they deemed to be vandalism as well to the in most cases combative stance graffiti writers took amongst themselves. Graffiti’s parameters developed with serious stakes, a extra or less one-upmanship expressed by art work. It became as soon as furthermore the distinctive title, Mr. Chalfant mentioned, of his influential 1984 images e-book, “Subway Artwork,” which he published with Martha Cooper, who became as soon as furthermore documenting the early stages of hip-hop tradition from avenue diploma.


CreditHenry Chalfant/Artists Rights Society (ARS), Unusual York; through Eric Firestone Gallery


CreditHenry Chalfant/Artists Rights Society (ARS), Unusual York; through Eric Firestone Gallery

As a lot as that time, galleries had expressed only a trickling ardour in graffiti art work — even less in the images of it. “It became as soon as exhausting for us to rep the e-book published,” Mr. Chalfant recalled at the museum recently. “We each tried one after the other and competed, and failed, and tried collectively and failed. We went to all these publishers and none had been eager. They mentioned, ‘Well, there’s been one,’ referring to the one in 1974 [“The Faith of Graffiti”] that Norman Mailer wrote the introduction to. So we went to Europe and staunch away Thames & Hudson mentioned here’s fair.”

As an art work fabricate, graffiti became as soon as, and in quite a lot of how stays, better obtained in Europe. Mr. Quiñones had his first gallery exhibition, in 1979, in Rome. “Subway Artwork,” along with the 1984 PBS documentary “Model Wars,” which Mr. Chalfant produced with Tony Silver, is credited with propelling graffiti’s world reach. It’s no longer unfamiliar, in Barcelona or Berlin or Copenhagen, to behold trains adorned with freshly painted pieces. The Bronx show mask became as soon as first exhibited in 2018 in Madrid, conceived by the Spanish graffiti artist SUSO33, who has called Mr. Chalfant “the ideal ambassador of graffiti tradition on this planet.” One day of its proceed, over a thousand other people visited it daily.

“I mediate Europe has continually been receptive to American fashionable tradition in traditional, and to American art work kinds very enthusiastically,” Mr. Chalfant mentioned. “African-American writers and artists went there and located the racial atmosphere became as soon as totally different, and they also felt extra blissful. I know a quantity of American citizens who adopted in their footsteps: Intriguing, Jon One, Core. Europeans in traditional deem art work a profession take care of any other, where American citizens peaceable gather a extra or less romantic realizing about it.”

To invent his images, Mr. Chalfant would gather a perch on the originate air subway platforms that afforded him the only light, typically Intervale Avenue and East Tremont on the 2 and 5 lines. He would shoot the painted vehicles as they shuttled previous, taking multiple exposures in mercurial succession and later collaging them to construct ideal panoramic info. He approached his field anthropologically, stalking the uptown platforms in the mornings and the downtown aspect in the afternoons, in most cases waiting hours for a pronounce educate to loop round.

Mr. Chalfant’s images iced up the trains in residing, but no longer the kinetic energy of the art work. By atmosphere apart each work, he confirmed its individualism. Graffiti writers most standard this, and Mr. Chalfant befriended heaps of them, eventually. He can gather felt “alienated from my have confidence privileged, white existence in a country club neighborhood out of doors Pittsburgh,” Mr. Chalfant mentioned, but he became as soon as peaceable considered as an outsider by the mostly gloomy and Latin graffiti artists in the Bronx.

“We didn’t the truth is know what to invent of him, if he became as soon as a police officer or why anybody else would be attracted to documenting the work we had been doing,” mentioned Chris Ellis, the graffiti artist who works as Daze. He became as soon as 17 when he met Mr. Chalfant in 1979. “He invited us to his studio and he had these portfolios of images. It became as soon as the truth is wonderful for us to behold, in 35 millimeter layout, our work.” Almost in the present day, writers began to name Mr. Chalfant the night they executed a half so he would know where to leer come morning.

He has since endeared himself to residents of the Bronx, and has devoted his decent career to telling their tales. “When I became as soon as taking pictures in the Bronx I spent heaps of time staunch inserting out in the stations, and also that you can hear the sound of the avenue and smell the aroma of espresso and cuchifritos coming up. I felt blissful here.”

Originate air of their artfulness, Mr. Chalfant’s images stand as a important act of urban historic preservation. Graffiti, which became as soon as ephemeral to begin up with, susceptible to be whitewashed, buffed, or defaced, became as soon as mostly obliterated by the mid-1980s. Town has modified critically in the intervening years. Graffiti persists on the unfamiliar field truck and pull-down gate, but has in any other case totally vanished from the subway.

Graffiti’s outlaw tint has furthermore dissipated, its day colored by nostalgia and its stylistic cues lengthy since co-opted by advertising and marketing and marketing. The influential works of the ’70s and ’80s — the genesis of a wholly usual American art work fabricate — largely live to sigh the tale now only in Mr. Chalfant’s archives. “His body of labor is well-known,” Mr. Ellis mentioned. “He’s enabled future generations with a goal to skills this work. If it wasn’t for Henry, it would only exist in memories.”

Henry Chalfant: Artwork vs. Transit, 1977-1987

Via March 8 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Substantial Concourse; 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.

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