"There was a time when the Lexington was a beautiful line. When children of the ghetto expressed themselves with art, not with crime. But then as evolution passed, the transits buffing did its blast. Now we wonder if graffiti will ever last..."
-graffiti epitaph by subway writer "Lee", 1980
Indeed there was a time in New York City when every subway car in the five boroughs was ablaze with a thousand vibrant colors. A time when people with names like Taki 183, P Nut, Blade, Smiley, Airborne, and Iz the Wiz left their marks on the colossal steel people-movers of the great metropolis. It was a glorious time to be a New Yorker: before the Disney corporation entered into its smothering embrace with the once glorious Times Square, before the whole city was overrun by jabbering effete European tourists, and before the powers-that-be began their attempt to turn the world's most dangerous city into just another middle-American strip mall.
When would-be Yuppie city-dwellers of the 1970's and 80's decided to go for a jaunt on their local subway line, the message sent loud and clear from the paint-strewn Underground was simple and direct: Neither you nor your pathetic government is in control here. You are a visitor, naked, and completely unprotected by the laws that rule the society above.
In this way, graffiti, along with hip-hop and break-dancing, grew to be a powerful symbol for outsider cultures within the city landscape. Crews (defined by writer T-Kid as "a bunch of brothers that are down by street law with each other") of writers formed, often with colorful names such as OTB (Out Ta Bomb), TNT (The Nation's Top), and CIA (Crazy Inside Artists). These youths, stocked with pocketfuls of fat caps and skinny caps, went out to bomb flats, ding-dongs, and every other type of train in the system. These kids were part of a street culture that had started much earlier and played an integral role in the history of their art.
Graffiti, of course, has been around since man learned how to write. Visitors to the great pyramids of Egypt will find the scrawled signatures of Napoleonic soldiers as well as earlier visitors, carved into the walls. In New York City, however, the trend of "tagging", or writing one's name, on subway cars is most often credited to Taki 183, a seventeen year old from 183rd Street in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, whose job as a messenger required him to travel on the trains everyday. Taki began writing his name all over the trains and stations of the transit system, and it wasn't too long before people started to notice. On July 21, 1971, the New York Times ran an article entitled "Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals," reporting on the sudden phenomenon of rapidly multiplying tags, and in the process making a folk hero out of young Taki.
Of course, the New York Times wasn't the only one who noticed. All over New York, more and more kids became enamored of the idea of their name traveling across the city every day and being seen by thousands upon thousands of commuters. The lure of fame proved overwhelming, and the trend of tagging on the subway grew at an explosive rate.
With so many youths competing for attention and space, it soon became necessary to go beyond simply scrawling one's name in black marker on a train wall to be noticed. A greater level of originality became more valued, as did more ambitious works. Logos, stylistic variations, size, and color were added to make pieces stand out from the crowd. It wasn't long before writers were covering entire sixty-foot by twelve-foot cars with a single work, a formidable and highly respected accomplishment among graffiti artists.
The Ultimate Piece
Known as the "top-to-bottom", covering an entire subway car in a single piece was the Holy Grail of writing. According to the book, "Subway Art" by Cooper and Chalfant, often described as the bible of graffiti, a "top-to-bottom" takes an average of eight hours and twenty cans of spray paint to complete. In addition to the sheer enormity of the task, writers also had to contend with being in dark and isolated train yards in dilapidated sections of the city, live third rails, and a vindictive police force. It is not hard to see why the "top-to-bottom" piece is considered to be such an amazing accomplishment.
In addition, the mere act of spray painting the car often required a surprising level of physical strength and endurance. Remember, trains are twelve feet high and there are no ladders or platforms in the train yard, and it is not ideal to bring one in through the small hole in the chain link fence and to carry it around amidst combative cops and vicious guard dogs. As a result, writers had to climb up the side of the car, holding on with one hand while painting with the other. Those writers blessed with extremely long legs could sometimes straddle the distance between the rows of parked trains, using the doorway of one car as a platform to work on the other.
Why Paint the Subway
When average people hear of the hardships endured by graffiti artists pursuing their chosen vocation, the first question they are likely to ask is "Why?" To your run-of-the-mill Joe Citizen who spends his days avoiding unnecessary risk and seeking the mundane comforts of a forty-hour work week and a house in the suburbs, the life of a graffiti writer is threatening and almost inconceivable. There seems to be little reason to risk one's life for something as meager as a fleeting moment of self-expression, soon to be cleansed away by a fresh coat of paint. But there are others who see it a different way: the dreamers and the adventurers, the bridge-climbers and the rebels. The graffiti writer falls squarely into this category.
Kingtwo, an old-school graffiti artist, described it like this: "The best feeling about writing on a train is something you can't describe until you do it. Graffiti was a way to express yourself, even though we knew it was illegal. We never considered the risk we took. When you do a masterpiece on the train and you add a three dimensional onto your letters and put a cloud around it, with designs here and there and no paint drips, the feeling was so great you can't imagine it."
Of course, like any rebellion, graffiti was opposed by an oppressive and fearful New York City government that was willing to do whatever it took to stop the art crimes of graffiti. Unfortunately, this time the bad guys won. By the mid-1980's, the New York City Transit Authority began replacing the trains with newer, chemically-coated, graffiti-proof versions that eventually brought the golden age of subway graffiti to a grinding halt, brutally ending one of the most fascinating art phenomena of the twentieth century.
Recently, however, the New Yorker magazine ran an article about a 28 year old man who still ventures into the labyrinthine tunnels and paints full "top-to-bottoms," despite the fact that the trains will be cleaned out the next morning and that his buffed creations will never be seen and appreciated by the public at large. At Jinx magazine, we believe his defiant actions will server as inspiration for an army of writers to regain the spirit of old and begin a new wave of art crimes.