In just about every movie set in New York City in the 1970s and 80s there’s an establishing shot with a graffiti-covered subway.
Saturday Night Fever
That graffiti was like illegible technicolor hieroglyphics—a language that even most New Yorkers couldn’t read. It gave you a sense that the subways controlled by wild gangs of teenagers. And they kind of were.
For city officials, train graffiti was a sign that they had lost control. So, starting in the early 70s, mayors of New York vowed to eradicate graffiti. First, Mayor John Lindsey formed the first anti-graffiti task force. He also re-classified graffiti from a nuisance, like littering or loitering, into a crime.
Still, subway graffiti persisted. For two decades, the MTA failed miserably in its attempts to fix the problem, sometimes, laughably. Like the time they decided to repaint 7,000 subway cars white. They called it “The Great White Fleet.” Of course, this only provided a fresh white canvas for the graffiti writers and then before you knew it, the fleet was covered in spray paint again.
The graffiti-resistant white paint was not as graffiti-resistant as the MTA had hoped. From nycsubwayhistory.org.
Then there was Mayor Ed Koch’s “Berlin Wall” method. Koch surrounded the train yards with two fences topped with barbed wire and guarded by German Shepherds. This worked until graffiti writers realized they could distract the dogs with food and cut through the fences.
Credit: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork
In 1984 David Gunn became President of the New York City Transit Authority.
Courtesy of Amtrak
David Gunn had already cleaned up subways in Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Toronto, and also headed up Amtrak for a while, too. Yet even Gunn was intimidated by the state of New York’s subways; he called the job a “suicide mission.”
For decades, authorities treated subway graffiti like it was a sanitation issue. Gunn believed that graffiti was a symptom of larger systemic problems. After all, trains were derailing nearly every two weeks. In 1981 there were 1,800 subway car fires—that’s nearly five a day, every day of the year!
When Gunn launched his “Clean Trains” program, it was not only about cleaning up the trains aesthetically, but making them function well, too. Clean trains, Gunn believed, would be a symbol of a rehabilitated transit system.
Systemically, train line by train line, Gunn took the subways off the map for graffiti writers. While they were fixing it, they didn’t allow any graffiti on it. If graffiti artists “bombed” a train car, the MTA pulled it from the system. Even during rush hour.
May 12, 1989 was declared the official day of the city’s victory over train graffiti.
But of course train graffiti has never stopped.
Courtesy of CETE
There is still subway graffiti—it just never leaves the train yards. Artists—many of them from abroad—paint subway cars knowing full well that they will get cleaned before they’re ever seen by the public.
Courtesy of CETE
The only place most people can see NYC subway graffiti is on social media.
The primary place New York City subway graffiti lives today: #cleantrain on Instagram
Given that graffiti artists won’t have their work seen as widely as they once did by painting the trains—and with a substantial risk of jail time and severe fines—subway graffiti in New York may be dying out.
And if it did, how would we even know?
Credit: Alexis Janine
Reporter Ann Heppermann spoke with artist Caleb Neelon; former NYC Transit Authority director David L. Gunn; Vincent DeMarino, Vice President of Security the MTA and New York City Transit; and graffiti artist CETE (which stands for “Clean Trains”).
Recently, CETE was arrested by the Vandal Squad (the NYPD anti-graffiti unit). CETE was charged with more than 180 counts of misdemeanor counts including “Possession of a Graffiti Instrument,” plus a few felony charges. CETE took a plea deal and agreed to pay nearly $19,000 in restitution fees. He is now on probation.
Production help provided in this episode by Robie Flores.
Music: “Subway Theme” – DJ Grand Wizard Theodore; “Theme from ‘The Warriors’” – Barry De Vorzon; “Five Fingers” – Aesop Rock; “Dark Heart News” – Aesop Rock; “Orem Owls” – OK Ikumi; “Scythian Empire (live)” – Andrew Bird; “Cavern” – Liquid Liquid; “None Shall Pass” – Aesop Rock; “Try” – OK Ikumi; “Theme De Yoyo” – Art Ensemble of Chicago; “South Bronx Subway Rap” – Grandmaster Caz; “Vazgone”- Melodium