Exploring Street Art with Martha Cooper

One day before her talk at this year’s TEDxVienna event I got to chat with our wonderful speaker Martha Cooper about her work and what it means to be OUT THERE. Having documented graffiti and street art in New York from its very beginnings, her book “Subway Art” is now known to be the bible of street art. Knowing that she instantly pulls out her smartphone and starts filming whenever fascinating art catches her attention, I feel very sad not to be able to spontaneously perform breakdance in front of her. Or to skateboard. Or to paint. But what can you do? Amazingly, she is very nervous (or completely scared, to use her words) before her talk, but thankfully still agrees to have our interview. Thanks, Martha! 🙂

Happy Martha Cooper at her “Red Bull Amaphiko: Martha Cooper & Mundano” Exhibition. (1)

Q: Where do you draw the connection between our topic OUT THERE and photography?

I wanted to talk about photography as exploration. Illustration of photography has always been used to document people’s expeditions and explorations and how we can all be explorers by using cameras.

Q: By going out there?

That is, in fact, sort of how I view photography: it makes me want to go out and explore. And then, when I find something, I want to take a picture of it.

Q: And also show it!

Yeah and also show it. I mean, it used to be me and the publisher and that was very difficult to find. But now, because of social media, we can be the publisher as well, so we can put our own work out there. You know, on Instagram or whatever, even self publish a book. That’s a big change in my lifetime!

Martha Cooper filming United Mindz Crew at the “Red Bull Amaphiko: Martha Cooper & Mundano Exhibition” at Popupzentrale, Vienna. (2)

Q: You could have also chosen established topics to photograph, why did you choose graffiti?

When I first became aware of what it was, it just… I had actually been an art major, so the idea that young people had an art that adults didn’t understand, made me feel like I had been led into a secret world. They were so into it, there was a vocabulary, there were so many aesthetics and rules of how they did it. It was just fascinating to me that it was coexisting with art in the “real world”. I just got drawn in to the topic. I didn’t really choose it, it chose me – kind of.

Click on this link to get to the TEDxVienna Instagram Page. (3)

Q: Which work of yours, do you think, will have the most impact?

The book “Subway Art”. This year a new edition came out. It was first published in 1984. This is definitely what has had the most impact. No matter where I go, kids are coming up to me and saying, I grew up on Subway Art.

Q: What do you know about Austrian street art culture and graffiti artists?

I don’t know a lot about it, but I’m going to find out about it, because I’m going on an streetart Instawalk today. I know Nychos, he and I have crossed paths. We were in Bangkok together last year. He was spraying on Coney Island this spring. There is a kind of a street art circuit and a lot of artists are on that circuit. And that is also what I like about it: I can spend time with the artists and watch them work, because for me watching them work is way more interesting than just seeing the finished wall. I like to see the process.

Q: Are you nervous before your talk?

Completely scared. I’m not a practiced speaker, so it’s a scary thing to do, but everybody has been very helpful!


Are you curious about how her talk went? You can watch it here, alongside other amazing talks from our OUT THERE conference! You can also find Martha on Instagram.

Photo Credits: 

Header Picture: Thomas Suchanek
(1),(2) & (4): Ece Isil Sahin (Editing done by Matthias Nemmert)
(3): TEDxVienna Instagram Page
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About Ece Isil Sahin

Ece has fallen for the arts since she was 5 years old. Growing up between backstage areas and theatre cafés, she is now majoring in Theatre-, Film- and Mediastudies at the Universitiy of Vienna.

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