Martha Cooper: Rock Star in the Realm of Street Art

Thirty-something years ago, when we were in our forties and next-door neighbors in an Upper West Side of Manhattan high-rise, my friend Martha (“Marty”) Cooper and I would get together one evening a week, share a bottle of wine, and fret about our futures.

We talked of other things as well, of course, but our conversations always returned to this: Where would we be in ten (or twenty, or thirty) years? How much longer could I maintain my supremely stressful and exhausting catering business single-handedly? How could Marty continue schlepping her heavy and unwieldy photographic equipment everywhere on her own? And what impact would the encroaching digitization of photography have on her career?

Ultimately, at fifty, I decided to leave frenetic NYC in the dust, close my catering business, join the Peace Corps, and serve as a health and nutrition volunteer for two years in Gabon, Central Africa. (For the whole story, please read my memoir How to Cook a Crocodile, available from Amazon.com.)

Marty stayed in the City and went on to greater and greater heights to become a world-renown documentary photographer focusing on capturing often-ephemeral “public art” (including both street art [imagery] and graffiti [lettering]).

Her first of many books, Subway Art, published by the British publisher Thames & Hudson in 1984 – considered “one of the most influential art books of its time” — quickly became the bible of graffiti artists all over the world and has remained so since then.

Although she’s maintained her apartment in New York, Marty is seldom there because she’s always in worldwide demand. Her most recent trips have taken her to Valencia, Spain; Turin, Italy; and Helsinki, Finland. In the near future she’ll be traveling to street art events in Berlin, Germany; Glasgow, Scotland; Tahiti; Brazil; and Moscow.

But last week, she was here in Mexico, and I was lucky enough to be able to take a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride to visit her and see her at work shooting a special project in the center of Querétaro (capital of the state of Querétaro) presented by Nueve Arte Urbano, titled “El Agua es Una” (“Water is One”): “An Intercultural Festival for Water, Life, and Unity.”

According to Edgar Sanchez, executive director of Nueve Arte Urbano (who spent four years planning this project), “All of the murals address pressing issues, with an emphasis on the ‘Water is One’ theme. Our objective is to heighten the community’s awareness to their personal impact on both freshwater bodies as well as the world’s oceans.” This, I learned, is ARTivism in action.

This magnificent outdoor installation features fourteen murals painted with highly durable acrylic paint (expected to last over ten years) by international, national, and local artists, on the dome, base, and exterior walls of the CECEQ (Educational and Cultural Center of Querétaro) in el centro (which receives roughly two million visitors each year).

Cranes, scaffolding, and ladders lifted the young and intrepid artists to their wall “canvases.” And there was Marty, age 75, climbing, rappelling, and running around capturing it all for them.

I took photos too – mostly of Marty. Here are a few:

Marty in front of monarch on water mural
Marty with cultural center’s dome in background
Marty with one of the graffiti artists there to whom she gave posters of her work
Artists painting the dome at the cultural center in QTO
Marty geared up for climbing the dome to photograph the artists
Marty and me at the event last week — still friends after all these years!

When a group of about twenty young Mexican art students were given a tour of the murals-in-progress and the tour leader pointed out that the diminutive white-haired woman weighed down by long-lens digital cameras and bags of photographic gear was the legendary Martha Cooper, the group gasped, then called to her, in unison — in English — “Martha, we LOVE you!”

“I love you too,” Marty called back, waving to her fans.

~ ~ ~

For more on Martha Cooper and her work, be sure to watch her TED x Vienna talk, dated December 14, 2016: Graffiti and street art, a lifelong photo quest | Martha Cooper – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20IxPsf8aXw and follow her on Instagram (where she has 180,000 followers).

8 thoughts on “Martha Cooper: Rock Star in the Realm of Street Art”

  1. Aren’t you glad you have a blog so you can share these kinds of exciting stories? I loved this one particularly, about friendship, longevity, work that’s meaningful. Great photos all, especially the one of you and Marty. You still look 40, Bonnie!

    1. Aw, Barbie, only a true bff could say such a thing (your last line). Yes, I’m so happy that my WOW can feature amazing women like my dear friend Marty. When you reach your 70s, I’ll be able to feature YOU. (You’re too young now.) 🙂

  2. Dear Bon,

    What a charming article. And what a wonderful picture of two beautiful, wise older women.

    Love,
    Paul

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