In graffiti culture, a "burner" is an elaborately decorated spray-painting that looks so hot it burns, i.e., upstages, other pieces vying for attention. But the so-called "burners" in Henry Chalfant's book of the same name are, sadly, something of a washout.
Nearly all of the 40 subway cars in "Burners," which were photographed by Chalfant from the late 70s to the early 80s, feature graffiti that's badly executed and appallingly ugly to look at, even for that era. The illegally painted pieces -- many too-hastily made or unfinished, for obvious reasons -- have none of the skill and quality of work from Chalfant and Martha Cooper's landmark 1984 book "Subway Art" (which makes the masterpieces in that book even more impressive, considering the risky circumstances involved). In fact, one of the few paintings in "Burners" that justifies the book title comes from graffiti artist Skeme and -- surprise, surprise -- that same piece also happens to be in "Subway Art." Most everything else in "Burners" looks like "Subway Art" rejects.
To make matters worse, some of the decades-old images are digitally colour enhanced, adding an artificial, supersaturated look to what are already garish paintings. The result is the very definition of "eyesore."
Still another problem is the spiral-bound book itself. The horizontally formatted pages -- apparently designed to complement the shape of the subway cars -- are folded, which ultimately becomes irritating as you open each flimsy flap to reveal graffiti that's, well, irritating.
Given Chalfant's pedigree (he also collaborated on the acclaimed 1983 hip-hop documentary "Style Wars"), "Burners" is a puzzling book and isn't the sort of publication people will refer to when asked to explain the meaning of the word "burner".