NYC dream: Subway Art

Year: 1972
Place: Washington Heights, NY, NY
Time: 10 PM

A group of teenagers are waiting for the A train at the 175th Street subway station with their hands tucked in their pockets. They all are sweating with excitement! They know tonight if they succeed they would be remembered forever. The train approaches. The kids start running with the train. They take their hands out. Each one of them is holding a bottle of spray paint. Before the train stops they start spraying paints of various colors on the side of the subway cars and windows. They need to be fast! At this hour, there are not many passengers. But the cops may come any time. The subway conductor tucks his head out of his window and screams – “Hey you…”! The kids hurry up. They are working on their last strokes. The doors close, the train starts moving. The kids are running with the train again. This time to finish their art. The conductor shuts his window and mutters “Crazy vandals!”. These kids are not part of the Wild Cowboys or the Red Top Gang. They are the new “Kings” of subway graffiti who just finished writing their names in all five boroughs of New York City tonight!

NYC Subway
New York City Subway is a rapid transit system. It is the 4th longest subway system in the world with 468 stations and  the 7th largest number of ridership [1] Now these are only statistics. The fun part of NYC subway is in its dynamics. Although there are certain ground rules, the service changes all the time based on train traffic, construction and other factors. Just like the city, the subway is part of an ever-changing flux of people from all around the world.
  Being at the cultural center of the Western world, what sets NYC subway apart from other subway systems, is its art. The history of the subway is entwined with various art movements in NYC. Whether, because of the 1970’s and 80’s Graffiti movement or the artworks and performances officiated by Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), travelling by the subway is a journey with the most creative and competitive artists and musicians in the world.
  Most New Yorkers and some tourists know about the differences between the red and green lamps outside a subway station, or between the circle and rhombus shape around the train names, or trains that run on the same track in some neighborhoods. But there are couple of hidden gems of the subway, that are unknown to many New Yorkers. I will cover some of them in this essay. 

 The whispering gallery in Grand Central

In an underpass below Grand Central station, the arched walls allow the sound travel across the domed ceiling allowing two people to hear each other whisper when they stand at diagonal arches [2]. 
The old City Hall station
The City Hall subway stop on the 6 line closed in 1945 as it could not be modernized. We can sneak a glimpse of this station if we stay on the 6 train towards downtown after the last stop, as it passes through the station when it loops around to the uptown platform [2].

The three major types of artworks on subway
The cultural center of the western world, the big apple, New York City has been harboring millions of artists and various forms of artworks for many years. The art of NYC is like an ocean and in this book, we can only try to understand couple of drops of salty water from that ocean. We focus on three of the earliest forms of art here – painting, sculpture and music.  
Artwork: City Glow
Chiho Aoshima (2005)
Line: BMT Broadway Line
Location: 14th Street/Union Square 
Photo by: Robbie Rosenfeld [3] 

Artwork: Trains of Thought
Line: IND 6th Avenue Line
Location: Grand Street 
Photo by: Robbie Rosenfeld [3]  
The convoluted history of Graffiti art
In 1974, NYC was a city in crisis. Abe Beame, cut the city’s budget exceptionally to overcome the bankruptcy. But because of this a lot of school teachers, police officers, subway staffs lost their jobs. There were no outlets for the New Yorkers to protest against all the corruption. So, the city became their outlet, their canvas, their audience!
  First, someone just wrote his name, then someone else noticed it and added on to that. Soon, there were “letters going in front of letters, coming back through a letter, behind a letter, going across a letter… the subways became our playground”, as the subway artist Riff170 told in an interview to BBC [5].  That’s how graffiti art turned into an explosion, a movement.
  Graffiti writers came from all races – African American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Jewish, Asian etc. In 1977, there was huge power cut leading to blackout, loots and riots in the city. Abe Beame was replaced by Ed Koch who was determined to clean up the city. In 1983, David Gunn was hired as the president of NYC transit authority who launched a campaign to banish graffiti. Trains were taken out of service, cleaned as soon as any graffiti was spotted, carriages were protected at night behind the razor wire and the city banned selling spray cans to minors. In 1984, 80% of carriages were graffiti free. In 1989, MTA celebrated a graffiti free subway network.

TRACY 168, who began writing graffiti in the late sixties and invented wild style in the mid-seventies, painted this train in two minutes in 1974. Afterward, he added ink and whiteout to the photo [8].  

The United Graffiti Artists in 1973. From left, first row: COCO 144 and Hugo Martinez; second row: Rican 619, LEE 163, and Nova 1; third row: Rick 2, Ray-B 954, Cano 1, SJK 171, Snake 1, and Stay-High 149; fourth row (standing): Stitch I, Phase 2, Charmin 65, Bug 170 [8].


Losing my marbles
This glass mosaic masterpiece stretches across a 32-foot wall and two neighboring side walls in the 42nd St-Port Authority Bus Terminal station. Created by Lisa Dinhofer in 2003, it depicts a variety of toy marbles intended to stimulate the mind through illusions that manipulate physical perception [6].

Time square mural
This brightly colored masterpiece stretches 6-feet high and 53-feet long inside the entrance of 42nd Street and Broadway in the Time Square subway station.  Created by Roy Lichtenstein in 2002, the mural celebrates the history of New York City transit by featuring visionary images of masonry, machines and modernism [6].

This animated piece of artwork lines the walls of the acant Myrtle Ave station on the B/Q lines and can be seen from Manhattan-bound express trains as they depart from the DeKalb station platform. Created by Bill Brand in 1980, this mural was inspired by a zoetrope and consists of 228 panels that come alive to create a moving image we pass by on the train [6].


Life underground
These pint-sized people are scattered about the floors and strewn along the railings of the 14th Street subway station at 14th St and Eighth Avenue. Created by Tom Otterness in 2001, the cartoonish bronze sculptures depict various scenes that comically poke fun at notions of criminality and corruption in New York City [7].

This overhead art installation can be found on the ceiling of the Bleecker Street subway station underneath the streets of Soho. Created by Leo Villareal in 2012, this work of art resembles hexagonal honeycomb patterns of moving neon-colored lights that aim to explore the human brain’s compulsion to identify patterns and establish meaning. [6].

A gathering
These little bronze birds can be found sitting atop the metal railings along the mezzanine of the Canal St subway station in Chinatown. Created by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz in 2001, this installation features more than 180 sculptures of crows, grackles and blackbirds perched in groups to highlight the social similarities that exist between people and birds.[6].

A selection of 60 soloists and groups performed in Grand Central Terminal on May 13, 2014 during the MTA’s 27th annual auditions for its Music Under New York program. The auditions were held to add new talent to the program, which is administered by MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design (AFT) and presents more than 7,500 performances annually in the MTA’s subways and railroads. Photo: MTA Arts For Transit / Rob Wilson [9]. A video clip of 2012 Music under New York is available on youtube [10].

Year: Unknown
Place: Midtown Manhattan, NY, NY
Time: 5 PM
A group of tourists are waiting for the tickets at the Museum of Modern Art with their hands tucked in their pockets. They all are sweating with excitement! They know tonight they are visiting a world-class collection of a modern art movement from 70’s and 80’s. The long line moves. The tourists finally enter the galleries. They take their hands out. Each one of them is holding a camera. They start taking pictures. They need to be fast! The museum will only be open till 8 PM tonight! This whole gallery is dedicated to the graffiti art of New York City. They take pictures of graffiti done by Dondi, Lady Pink, Zephyr, Julio 204, Friendly Freddie, Moses 147, Snake 131 and many more. Finally, a museum docent politely reminds them that the museum will close in 30 minutes. The tourists hurry up. They chatter excitedly in a foreign language among themselves and walk towards the exit sign. One of them pose and take picture of herself. The museum staff smiles and mutters “Tourists!”. These tourists flew from another continent to watch the art created by the teenager artists of 70’s who were once referred to as “Vandals”!

1. New York City Subway
2. 18 hidden secrets in NYC by Kaylin Pound
4. Music Under New York (MUNY)
5. Great Art? The graffiti of the New York subway By Chris Summers
6. 8 Amazing Art Installations in NYC’s Subway Stations by Kaylin Pound
7. Life underground
8. Graffiti in its own words by Dimitri Ehrlich and Gregor Ehrlich
9. 2014 Music under New York auditions
10. 2012 Music under New York auditions

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