Henry Chalfant entered the graffiti scene of 1970s New York not as a painter, but as an artist of another kind.
Inspired by the colorful paint that was splashed across subway cars and buildings, Chalfant started taking photographs of what he saw.
Now, for the first time in the United States, Chalfant’s work has earned a solo exhibition in “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987’ at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. To get Chalfant’s American debut, the 1040 Grand Concourse museum launched a crowdfunding campaign over the summer to raise more than $30,000. That allowed the museum to ultimately include 80 images, videos, and even a re-creation of Chalfant’s studio, complete with a painting gifted to him by graffiti artist Michael Tracy, better known as Tracy 168.
“We focus on artists for whom the Bronx has been very important,” said Deborah Cullen, the museum’s executive director. “The works depicted in photos are from very important artists. They fit very well into our exhibiting history, our mission.”
Artists including Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinoñes, Tracy 168, Blade and Zephyr started “bombing” the subway in the 1970s, covering entire cars in murals and tags. Tracy 168 and Blade both hail from the Bronx and frequented the elevated subway lines that run through the borough. Some of Tracy’s art can still be spotted around the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge.
Chalfant’s photographs capture entire painted train cars, photographed in small sections and meticulously stitched together. He was fascinated by the then-maligned artform, and catalogued it meticulously.
The exhibition features some of those detailed captures. Chalfant would often take several photographs down the length of a train car — or of multiple cars — and carefully stich them together, lining up each edge to create one whole photograph.
The New York Police Department officially launched its “war on graffiti” in 1972, cracking down hard on anyone caught painting subway cars. In 1981, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rolled out an all-white fleet in an attempt to reduce graffiti, according to published reports at the time.
While that effort was not entirely successful, the subway was graffiti-free by 1989.
That means Chalfant’s photographs are, in some cases, the only memories of the street art of that era.
For those who may never have seen those painted trains, there are full-size walls covered in blown-up images of his photographs, and projected subways roll through the room above the heads of visitors, screeching to a halt as they enter.
As artists and communities grew accustomed to his presence, Chalfant took photographs of people, too. His works feature teenagers painting in train yards and block parties, and children opening fire hydrants on hot days. He would go on to become an integral part of the graffiti community, becoming friends with some of the artists he knew.
In one of his photographs, artist Crash is spray-painting a wall with an invitation to one of Chalfant’s own exhibits.
Artists would visit Chalfant in his studio, museum officials said, not just to visit him, but because his photographs were sometimes the only reminders of their work that had been long washed away.
The photographs aren’t the only art in the exhibition. Under glass, original sketches by the artists he photographed show the detailed planning that went into the enormous paintings. Rough sketches are jotted with notes on location and colors to be used in each piece.
Appreciating the art that was so looked-down upon at the time was an important part of bringing the exhibition to the Bronx.
“We’re not encouraging vandalism,” Cullen said. “We’re looking at it as the birth of a cultural movement. Now it’s an international phenomenon, globally well appreciated, and it’s also recognized here.”
The museum wants to recognize the cultural contributions of Chalfant and the painters he loved during a hard time in the Bronx and New York City history as a whole, she said
His photographs of the emergence of hip-hop culture are just as full of life. Hung against black walls, many of the photos are labeled in sharpie in Chalfant’s handwriting. “Frosty Freeze, 102 Street and Amsterdam Avenue, 1981,” and “Mattress Acrobats-South Bronx, 1985.”
The opening of the exhibit reunited Chalfant with some of the subjects of his photographs. DJ Kay Slay, a disc jockey and artist whose real name is Keith Grayson, is featured in some of the photographs, and he even revisited some of the sketches he hadn’t seen in decades. Jorge Fabel Pabon took to the floor to break dance, and graffiti artists signed each other’s books and maps as they reunited to celebrate Chalfant.
“It was really beautiful,” Cullen said. “There were a lot of reunions, and the artists felt that their worked was appreciated by the museum.”