Let’s assume you’ve plucked this fine publication, at least once, from one of its many red news boxes on New York City sidewalks. You might not have noticed that the container had been mischievously assaulted with a frantic array of crudely drawn stickers. Maybe it was a postal label hand-cut into a graffiti tag, a cockeyed teddy bear, or an anthropomorphic toilet. Could have been a United States Postal Service marker that asserted, in the unsettling third person of a prehistoric Facebook status update, “KOSBE FEELS LIKE SHIT TODAY.” Or a slogan meant much more sardonically, like the tech-ennui dictum “SEND ME TO VOICEMAIL,” scrawled on a rare Japanese mailer and signed by well-known graffiti marauder Neckface. Whatever the piece was, photojournalist Martha Cooper probably owns it now. “Sorry, everybody,” she says impishly. “I stole them.”
If there’s anybody who shouldn’t apologize for lifting graffiti and its various bastardized permutations, it’s Cooper. A former New York Post staff photographer with an anthropology degree, the Upper West Side resident is responsible for capturing some of the most seminal images in early graffiti and hip-hop history: She photographed Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early public doodles, published last year in a soft-cover called Tag Town. The movie poster for the hip-hop classic Wild Style is her shot. Most significantly, in 1984, she co-authored Subway Art, a landmark documentation of NYC’s Koch-killed train-painting era that will be re-published this April for its 25th anniversary.
But Cooper’s most recent project, a small hardcover entitled Going Postal—published in January by Mark Batty—focuses on something much more esoteric: the largely ignored phenomenon of street artists with monikers like C.Damage, Malic, and Morg repurposing address labels as sketchbook pages and then slapping them up on fire extinguishers, poles, and the backs of traffic signs. USPS mailers may seem like a peculiar canvas—given that they’re prefabricated with a blue-and-red stripe and To/From text—but their appeal is both cost-effective (they’re free) and subversive.
“What I really like about postal stickers is the idea that the U.S. government is participating in street art,” Cooper explains from a counter stool in a 14th Street coffee shop, a knitted scarf and matching OBAMA-print hat tucked into her bag. She’s simultaneously eating a whole-wheat doughnut and examining a sticker that demands, “WHERE THE FUCK IS MY MOONCAKE?” This conveniently works as a thought bubble, but it’s actually scrawled on a page in the sleeved album she’s brought along, to show off just a few of the “couple thousand” stickers she has spotted on foot since 2003, shot digitally, then carefully detached with an adhesive remover that lives in her backpack. “It’s like a little treasure hunt, when you’re walking around, to always have your eyes out.”
This could easily be dismissed as eccentric trash-picking if Cooper wasn’t so highly regarded. Last month, she hung a solo show at Shepard Fairey’s Los Angeles gallery, Subliminal Projects, and the propaganda-art behemoth collaborated with her on a limited-edition print of one of her best-known images—a young boy leaping off a Lower East Side balcony onto a junk-heap pile of old mattresses. Brazilian twin-brother street artists Os Gêmeos, who had an indoor Deitch Projects solo exhibition last year, consider Subway Art so personally influential that they presented Cooper with a portrait that’s now in her Manhattan living room. AIKO, a Japanese stencilist formerly of the street collective Faile, once even had Cooper stay at her parents’ house overseas. (As for everyone else who sees Cooper at openings, “They probably think I’m someone’s mom.”)
So to have Cooper’s expert eye trained on mailing address labels—in street art, the equivalent of, say, camera-phone snaps—lends the format credibility. Within reason, of course. “Nobody’s arguing this is fine art,” says Cooper, whose wire earrings are fashioned like miniature cameras. “I would classify this as the same kind of art as, say, different hairstyles. Or people who decorate their cars.” And Going Postal is a record of such “customization of everyday objects.”
Of course, having someone like Martha Cooper paying attention could also have other unintended consequences. “I hope I don’t commercialize them,” she admits. “I hope the artists don’t all start trying to sell them on eBay.”
Martha Cooper celebrates Going Postal‘s release Friday, February 20, at Ad Hoc Art, 49 Bogart Street, Brooklyn. The gallery will follow the party with a two-day sticker-themed group show from the likes of Kosbe, C.Damage, Stain, Claw Money, and more