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A Conversation with New York Legend – Photographer Maripol

Photographer/Designer – Maripol's styled Madonna, Deborah Harry, and Grace Jones.

Maripol from her book Maripola X. Maripol is cheeky. She’s a hoot. Sitting in a café round the corner from the Noho loft she’s lived in since 1979, I flick through her latest and most personal book of Polaroids to date, Maripola X. I tell her that her body is phenomenal – you can’t help but comment on it. In many of the Polaroids Maripol lies supine and scantily clad, or with her back arched, all peachy derriere and impossibly perfect breasts. She emits a throaty laugh and says, “Chin-chin!” And we clink glasses.


Those unfamiliar with Maripol, here’s your introduction to multi-disciplinary artist who, in 76, fresh from her studies at École des Beaux-Arts, traded France for New York and immediately immersed herself in the city’s gritty glamor. She disco-ed the night away at Studio 54, hung out at Max’s Kansas City, stopped by Warhol’s Factory, befriended Fab 5 Freddy, was neighbours with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Maripol would sit on subways watching the world flash and flicker out the window, observing the city’s denizens, photographing them as they starred in their own individual movies. She viewed this foreign land and the experiences unfurling before her with an enthusiasm and curiosity she still displays today – some 30 plus years later.

During those heady first few years Maripol worked as a sometime model and stylist, working with Grace Jones and Blondie (on the album cover shoot for Parallel Lines) and was soon hired as art director for Italian fashion house Fiorucci. By 1979 she’d founded Maripolitan Popular Objects, an accessories label that specialised in stacked rubber bracelets, dangling peace signs, and re-appropriated religious iconography – she was a Catholic-raised girl studding her ears with crosses. Enter Madonna and a fruitful partnership during which Maripol styling the future queen of pop for her self-titled debut and “Like a Virgin”-era record sleeves, bedecked in pearls, torn lace, and layers of rubber and silvered bracelets. It’s a look that, thanks to the album imagery and Madonna’s subsequent orgiastic MTV performance in 1984, sent ripples round the music and fashion world to be emulated for much of the 80s and beyond.


At the tail-end of 1980, Maripol took on the role of producer, teaming up with her then boyfriend, director and photographer Edo Bertoglio, to shoot Downtown 81. Scripted by former Interview magazine editor Glenn O’Brien and starring Jean-Michel Basquiat as a struggling musician and graffiti artist (with a glut of cameos from the city’s vibrant music scene), the film is a day-in-the-life portrait capturing the colourful characters and avant-garde artists who populated the Lower East Side and Alphabet City. When funding fell out of production, the movie’s completion stalled, only to be resurrected and released in 2000. Although part of the audio was lost (Basquiat’s voice is overdubbed by Saul Williams), this rare moment in the city’s cultural history has at last seen the light of day.

During all of this Maripol’s constant companion has been her Polaroid camera, her countless pictures in part edited into three previously published art books. Just last month she released Maripola X (via Le Livre Art Publishing NYC), a limited edition art and literary collectable filled with Maripol’s shots and 69 previously unpublished poems, written in both French and English. Much like her poetry, her photos are fleshy, sensuous, and tantalising too – each snap a stolen scene. It’s a book of half stories that leaves you wondering what happened one frame later.

"Tuesday" by Maripol (Maripola X songs) from Velvet Eyes Films on Vimeo.


Above is the video premiere of “Tuesday,” a companion to Maripola X. A collaboration with Parisian musician Léonard Lasry and Axel Wursthorn, it’s a pulsating synth track featuring Maripol huskily sing-speaking her poem "Tuesday" to the beat. Directed by Thalia Mavros, the video is inspired by Maripol’s imagery, and, as Mavros puts it, “the sensation of libertine freedom, youthful abandon, and the personal metamorphosis they capture.” Rather appropriately it stars NY nighttime fixture, musician-turned-DJ Alix Brown, encased variously in fur, fishnets, and corsetry – a 60s-meets-modern coquette.

These days Maripol continues to document the world around her, as well as designing jewelry – there was a collection in conjunction with Marc Jacobs a few years back – and as Atomic Glamour, which incorporates mesh collars, Art Deco-inspired rings, blinged-out bobby pin collars, and revamped updates of her signature rubber bracelets – this time 14 karat UFO-shaped clasps.

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As with everything Maripol has her hand in, fashion, music, photography lie entwined in bed together, a glorious tangle of limbs and melded bodies. Which is just as it should be in the arts – each bleeding into and influencing the other.

Noisey: I love the first poem in the book with the line: “New York I smell danger and danger smells me.” By and large NY isn’t considered dangerous anymore, but what was it like back in the 70s and early 80s when you were running around the city?
Maripol: We lived not far from a place called Needle Park. So much drugs! You couldn’t even cross Union Square back then without getting mugged. That’s how bad it was. Junkies do anything for drugs. The city was bankrupt, it was in the hands of the mafia. President Ford declared: ”Oh the hell with NY.”


The music and fashion world in the city during those years was so hedonistic, were you ever involved in the seamier side of things? The drugs for instance, was it ever seductive?
It was at Studio 54 that fake cocaine would be falling from a giant spoon! My boyfriend was involved, but just by seeing people doing it turned me off. Of course I tried, but I was famous for being a cheap date! Also I was famous for catching the vibe – in the sense that if somebody was taking coke I was really hyper, and if someone was taking downers I was mellow. Another thing was I was shortsighted. I stopped wearing my contacts and I didn’t want to wear my glasses so I thought the city was very beautiful. Then one day I wore contacts and then I saw the city – oh my God! Dirty, ugly, beat up.

Ha! I love that: your imperfect eyesight as a natural Vaselined lens. What kind of music were you into at the time? Disco? Were you at Studio 54 all the time?
Yes but before that there were other things. Max Kansas City being one of them. The music in the city was very eclectic. You could find whatever you wanted there. My neighbours were Kid Creole and the Coconuts, so I was into live music all the time. I liked jazz because I grew up with my brothers and they were into blues and l lived not far from Blue Note. I came to New York already listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie and Roxy Music.

What about Deborah Harry? She is my all-time perfect pop star.
I love her! I styled Blondie’s album cover – Parallel Lines – but she didn’t let me do too much. She was wearing a white dress and I just added some of my accessories. The dress was a little long so I kept trying to push it up. Some pictures are above the knee and some not.


You’re friends with Grace Jones to this day. What was your first impression of her?
You know she was a top model in Paris already, modeling for Kenzo and Issey Miyake. She was a big diva. I thought she was an amazing person, like a statue – perfect long legs, and beautiful tits and shoulders. She was out of the ordinary. Very stylish already. The first time I met her she opened her closet to me and I was like, oh my God!

Tell me a bit about this shot of Madonna in the sheet.
That was her first album cover shoot – but it was rejected because the record company decided it was not Madonna enough. We have some beautiful pictures from that time where she was dressed in a drape, more like a Roman goddess, but they wanted to bring it back to the streetwear.

Your rubber bracelets became a pretty iconic fashion accessory in the 80s. Why rubber?
When I went to Tokyo in 1979 I would roam the industrial neighbourhood and then I realised why not change the plumbing item to something wearable. Also it’s very practical because you can take a shower with it. In your book there’s a great shot of a topless Vincent Gallo looking rather vulnerable and exposed in a bathtub. Tell me about the situation in which this was taken.
I don’t know. [Shrugs coyly.] It’s impossible for me to say… we were dating. I broke up with my boyfriend and thank God [Vincent] was there and he really helped me out. You know when you’re desperate and you’re still in love? So Vincent diverted me from that. He was in love; I was such a bitch to him! When he was really young he used to be a waiter in a restaurant that we used to go to. He used to come to come to my table and make eyes at me. I would be like, “Yes, this is my boyfriend,” [gestures to someone sitting with her.] So it kind of makes sense that later when I was at the most vulnerable…


…that he was there. It’s a great shot.
He took sexy pictures of me and then he got married when AIDS happened – because that was the way – and the girl he married was so jealous that she destroyed the pictures!

This is you? Your body is phenomenal.
I know. Then! [Laughs] Chin-chin! I’m an exhibitionist! This is the proof. I remember Ronnie Cutrone, who passed away recently, was the assistant of Andy Warhol. One day I was with him and he said, "There are many models and actresses, but you’re really the sexiest girl in New York." I came into the Factory one day and Ronnie said that Andy said, “My God, who was that sexy girl?” I had just a tube dress and high heels.

“We’re on a boat in Italy. Thank God she has her leg in the middle of my leg! [Laughs] They were all Swiss French, except [the girl on the right] was a French model: Benedicte.”

When did you first start taking Polaroids? And what was it that you liked about them?
When my boyfriend Edo gave me my first Polaroid back in 77. Well he was going to the lab to develop and everything do colour correction, and I was like I don’t want to do that. It was just instant. It was a great tool for me as well as a very faithful companion, whether I was going to a club or travelling or styling.

Did you feel the need to constantly document stuff because you felt what was going on in your life was very ephemeral?
Yes, but subconsciously, not calculatedly. For the film, Downtown 81, yes. I definitely knew that was a moment that wasn’t going to last. Everything else – it didn’t really matter that it wasn’t going to last because I was always going to go around and take pictures. If I may add, I think the fact that I’m not American [is important]. You come to this country and you feel like a newcomer, a pioneer of the new generation, and your eyes are a little wider. You’re surprised. You’re much more conscious than if you’ve lived here all your life. You have a need to snap, which is what people do with iPhones now.


Do you feel like the way people now are constantly taking and sharing pictures devalues the imagery or in some way takes away from the actual experience. People are too busy recording it all instead of living it.
Andy Warhol said we’re all going to be famous for 15 minutes and he was right. I value people who are still doing Argentic [photography]. Some photographers don’t even use digital. I don’t know how long that’s going to last. My grandfather was a photographer, my uncle too, my father too. I still have the glass plates from my family of the turn of the century.

With regards to Downtown 81 and you feeling like it was a fleeting moment, did you feel like it was because a lot of those people were living on the edge?
Not that they were going to die – although a lot of them did – but Studio 54 closed down after everyone got busted and then there was a lot of excess with the drugs and, you know, how long is it that you can burn your brain? I think what happened was important in the moment because New Wave was happening and maybe it wasn’t going to last because there was going to be another music movement coming after. Before us, who paved the way? The Beat Generation. They didn’t have any money, they crossed America, they were one the road and they were extremely amazing poets. Each generation has their amazing poets.

How did you feel when you started to comb through the footage of Downtown 81, some 20 years after it was shot?
It was very emotional. I did it for posterity, now it’s become a cult film. Now we’re releasing it in HD and you can see all the details.


Left: “This was my first paying job – as a model for a magazine.”

Right: “I like this picture because it’s mysterious but you can still see the style of the 80s. It’s Klaus Nomi. He was one of my first friends to die of AIDS. I like that picture because you can see the graphic lines with the shoulder pads.”

Who influences your personal style?
No one! I was watching a lot of films on TV when I was younger and I think one of my biggest influences was films from Italy from the 50s, the old back and white Rossellini movies – whatever D&G are doing now – slips and cleavage. It’s easy to be influenced by movies, and also my mother who had a lot of style.

A friend of mine was flicking through your book and said it reminded him of Dash Snow which is funny because you obviously came first. But you were friends with him right?
Yeah, he would come on the roof when he was really young, I think I was a big inspiration for his Polaroids. He was such a sweet boy. It’s so sad. I’m becoming so anti-drugs these days. After Philip Seymour Hoffman too; all these kids losing their parents. Who does it profit? Greed? That’s what I tell the kids and I’m going to say it loud. Don’t even go there – don’t even try. The drugs get addicted to you. It becomes a physical and mental addiction. I’m becoming very old fashioned – I don’t even smoke pot anymore.

How has your relationship with the city changed. Does it still inspire you in the same way?
We grew up with punk and beginning of rap and hip-hop so sometimes people look at me shocked because I speak with that kind of attitude. It’s not fair to think that there’s nothing happening from the new generation – there’s new designers, new artists, new musicians, new everything! And that’s very inspiring.


Left: “Hal was our boy toy of the day. Hal was a fetish boy, gay, or maybe not defined then. We were flirting with him a lot. You know when you have this young beautiful boy and we were a bit motherly to him. He lives in Greece now. I say we because all the girls loved him!”

Right: “That was a Wall Street guy. Very handsome. I see him around sometimes.”


The limited single “Tuesday”/”Passion in the Desert” – which features two poems from Maripola X is available via 29 Music in collaborations with Le Livre Art Publishing.

Maripola X and prints from the book are available from Le Livre Art Publishing NYC. LLAPNYC is an art publishing company that produces editions of artworks in collaboration with acclaimed contemporary artists.

LLAPNYC seeks to create a means of encountering art that encompasses and exposes the creative process, from conception and creation through to the ethereal experiencing of the artwork itself.

The book is also available at BookMarc. Keep an eye out for the launch of Maripola X in April, in BookMarc’s in LA and Tokyo.

Kim is Noisey's Style Editor and she's on Twitter - @theKTB