40 Years of New York City Captured Through a Taxi Driver's Photos
When you think “Taxi Driver,” an image of New York City in the 1970s springs to mind—a dark, depraved city heaving with sleazy decadence and undeniable allure. It is a city that photographer and taxi driver Matt Weber has known all his life on rather intimate terms.
Born in 1958, Weber attended the famed High School of Music & Art from 1972 through 1974, discovering the emerging graffiti scene just as it was transforming the trains into massive works of public art. As a teen growing up in the 70s, Weber was free to run wild in the streets, until he realized it was time to get a job.
In 1978, Weber started working the night shift in midtown, witnessing a maelstrom of sex, drugs, and violence firsthand. His new book, Street Trip: Life in NYC (Carpet Bombing Culture), captures four decades of raw power and anarchistic energy that leaves you wanting more. You can catch Weber in Beyond the Streets, a street art exhibition where he will be collaborating with his childhood friend, the artist Eric Haze—or check out More Than the Rainbow, the documentary film about Weber's life.
We caught up with Weber and he shared his memories of New York when everyday life looked like a scene out of Scorsese.
VICE: What’s your history as a graffiti writer?
Weber: I grew up in the graffiti scene. I started in 1973 when I was 15. I wrote MALTA because I thought it was “mota,” the name of a really strong type of weed that people smoked, [not] “Malta,” that Caribbean “beer” that people drink. I was actually writing the wrong name for years.
I knew a lot of graffiti artists; FUTURA 2000 was one of my mentors. I mainly hit the 1, 2, and 3 trains on the west side. Running through subway tunnels when you’re tripping is virtually insane. Luckily I didn’t get hit by a train—but I did fall off a train once, back in '74, and I hit a pole at top speed. I got badly hurt and couldn’t get up. My friends carried me back to the platform and put me in a checker cab. I’m lucky to be alive. It’s a dangerous hobby.
Weber: I gave up graffiti in 1976, on my 18th birthday, because I had been arrested for it a few times. I could see my time would come and I didn’t want to go to a real jail with adults over a marker tag. I started driving a cab because I could see the writing on the wall.
Someone told me you could make $100 a night driving a cab, and that was a lot of money in 1978. You could get a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in Manhattan for $200. The fact that I could make my entire month’s rent in two nights was incredible. My only regret was that I didn’t buy a brownstone when they were $75K. I bought a taxicab instead, thinking it would be a great investment, which it was. But I sold the taxi medallion in 1990 for $123,000—before it went to $1 million, which was a decision that haunted me for a very long time!
VICE: What inspired you to take up photography again in 1984?
Weber: I kept seeing things on the streets. I saw a punk rock guy and he was having sex with a girl on the hood of his car at six in the morning. Then an old woman with a little dog walked by and stopped to stare at them. Half an hour later, I was driving back down that street and I saw his friend getting satisfied by the same woman in a different way—and I didn’t have my camera. Then I saw a knife fight near Port Authority late at night, two guys jabbing away, almost fencing with these little blades. I was in the cab so I was safe and I could have had these crazy shots of knives flickering under the streetlamps.