Sure as hell, that’s a crime

On “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987” at The Bronx Museum

September 25, 2019 – March 8, 2020

“Is that an art form? I don’t know, I’m not a critic, but I can sure as hell tell you that’s a crime,” a New York City detective says, in a white short-sleeved button-down, brown polyester tie grazing his waist as he motions towards a tagged subway car. It’s the first line of dialogue in Style Wars, a 1983 PBS doc produced by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, part of what made Chalfant – the Stanford grad and sculptor – famous. Chalfant’s photographs are even better known. Part anthropologist part documentarian, Chalfant followed the rise of hip-hop through graf writing, all at the center of The Bronx Museum’s recent show “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987,” highlights including full-size reproductions of bombed out subway cars, full-color panoramas of tagged trains, and wall photos of Bronx breaking crews and hip-hop scenesters.

On the standard story, Chalfant’s pictures turned up in magazines like The Village Voice and blew up the Soho art scene, throwing graf into the elite, commodified world of collectors and galleries. His work has shown at the Whitney, is in the Met collection, and now, he has his first U.S. solo show. What’s left out of this story is the slippage between Chalfant as anthropologist and Chalfant as artist: What’s interesting about his photographs is his subjects, not the photographs per se. While work of legendary graf writers Crash, Futura, Pink Lady, and Lee Quinones hardly get attention by institutions (not to mention that New York City still has a mayoral Anti-Graffiti Task Force), Chalfant’s given a legitimacy his subjects don’t have. Continuing with the rhetoric about art-making in and for marginalized publics, the person on the wall is a balding Stanford grad who studied classics. If the show raises questions about legitimacy and representation (both in view of Chalfant’s pictures and the figure himself), it’s some consolation that graffiti always defines legitimacy on its own terms. As one writer who worked with Chalfant commented in a 2007 interview with New York, if graffiti becomes “too legitimate, it loses part of what it’s about in the first place.”