The History of Subway Graffiti in New York City
By Alec Banks
On January 20th, 2020, the head of the Police Benevolent Association —the union that backs cops in New York City —declared that the city was heading back into the lawless days of the 1970s and 1980s. His evidence was a short video of a subway train with each car painted with colorful names.
What was once a misdemeanor crime in New York, was now proof that the city was running amok. MTA policy states that no cars that have been defaced are allowed to be put into service. This one not only ran, but excited straphangers also followed it with their cell phones. The PBA, in a beef with the Mayor who they view as anti-cop, posted the video on social media with the statement “ A true sign of decay.” Let’s go back in time to see exactly how we got here.
When the subway system in New York was built, there needed to be a place to store the subway cars at night.They built train yards at the end of each line where property was cheapest. In some cases, it was literally farmland.
Each train yard was different, with rows of tracks that could hold as many as fifteen trains and 150 cars. From 1904 to 1970, train yards may have been the quietest places in all of New York.
In the late 1960s graffiti begins in New York — as spray paint gets mainstreamed to local stores — and the magic marker is invented. Kids who once wrote their names with a bucket of paint, shoe polish, chalk, and anything else that would stick, now had a much bigger tool kit to work from.
Marker tags began appearing in 1967 — with TAKI 183 — taking it to an obsessive level in 1969 by hitting most of the boroughs, as well as the insides of the trains. By 1972, if you wanted to be a writer it meant stealing spraypaint and writing on the exterior of subway cars. A methodology of how to do this was being handed down to the next generation of writers who would go on to paint entire trains.
Before 1970, many kids roamed through train yards looking for fun and excitement because there were no fences. Sometimes they’d get caught and asked to leave, other times the workers might take a liking to them and have them run errands. Each time they’d pick up a new nugget of information about the transit system and how trains worked.
By 1972, with the subways blanketed with tags, an adversarial relationship began. Kids of all sizes and races were arrested, and small fences were erected around the yards.
By 1973, masterpieces were being done on the trains, and they took time to paint. A graffiti network sprung up at the Writers Bench on the Grand Concourse, it was there kids traded tips about what yards were hot, and what the best time to paint was.
There were so many options. There were not only large train yards in four of the five boroughs, there were layups as well. Layups were where you left a train in the middle of the night without bringing it into the yard. They were all over the transit system; some of them were on elevated tracks, and some were in the train tunnels themselves.
One of the most famous layups was the 1 tunnel on the Broadway line. It was part of the first train line built in 1904, and was the original spot where train service terminated. Years later they would finish the line and a train yard was built at the new final destination in the Bronx.
The 1 tunnel had a great impact during the graffiti movement from 1971 to 1989. As writers became more sophisticated, they knew that once the sweepers went through the trains at 2:00 AM on Saturday morning, they had a 26 hour window of time to paint. Some writers expanded that window by dodging the sweepers. Writers entered at 145th Street, or 137th Street, by walking to end of the platform and climbing down on the tracks.
The 1 tunnel consisted of seven lanes — two of which were in constant use — at least four of the other lanes held 10 car trains. By 1973, writers were bringing outlines drawn on paper to the tunnel, as well as bags of paint. They would start to transfer the outline to the train with the lightest color they had Z—usually standing on the wooden board that covered the third rail to gain extra height.
The third rail covering carried 675 volts and you didn’t want to bump into it. After they had a quick outline done they would start to paint it in, going from light colors to dark colors, and using a nozzle called a fatcap for extra width. The most exciting part of the painting was the finish, outlining the piece with a dark color, this time using a skinny nozzle. Once finished, the writers would leave via the emergency exit.
Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images
The 1 line — like so many other lines, had it’s ups and downs. By the mid-1970s it was blanketed with hastily done throw-ups. More impressive work was being done on the 2, 4, and 5 trains.
In 1977, the 1 tunnel became home to a newly formed graffiti crew called The Death Squad. The group consisted of many of the greatest stylists in graffiti. Shortly after they began, they competed with other talented crews like: RTW, TMT, and ROC Stars. Some of these writers became so comfortable that they went upstairs and got Chinese food at a local restaurant and ate it while sitting on the third rail.
In the early '80s —as some of these crews retired and the cycle began again, crews like FBA, FC, TC5, and 156 began battling it out.
It took until 1984 for the MTA to figure out how to stop graffiti by taking the graffitied cars out of service. Without getting a chance to take a picture of your train riding, writers questioned what was the point?
There was another new development. The MTA was getting new, modernized trains called Kawasaki’s, and they didn’t want them painted. As the Kawasaki’s entered the system they were kept in fortified yards, while other yards were left wide open. The message was clear to the writers: don’t touch the Kawasakis, and for the most part it worked.
The MTA declared the war on graffiti over in 1989. Most yards had been fortified to protect the new trains, and if one was painted it was rarely put in service. Yet, there were still a few hardcore graffiti writers who purposely hit the new trains. For them it was a badge of honor, and they weren’t going down without a fight. Many writers call this the “clean car movement.:
Writers continued to paint trains in yards and layups for the next thirty years, although they’d rarely run. By the millenium, it was mostly European writers painting trains in New York, taking a quick photo, and grabbing the next plane home. This took on the new name “Graffiti Tourism,” — with writers traveling from country to country. Since New York was considered the Mecca of the graffiti movement, there was a cache to painting a New York subway, and it was on every “Graffiti tourist’s” list. European writers had streamlined the process so well that it was like watching an episode of Mission Impossible. There were only three entire trains painted during the 20 year subway movement, all ten cars, top to bottom, and each one was a lengthy endeavor. For Europeans, using newer, wider nozzles, painting with both hands at once, and painting as a team, an entire ten car train could take less than two hours.
The only difference between the whole train painted last year, and the ones prior to it, was that this one was publicized by the same cops that hated graffiti. Since last year, more whole cars have been captured running by writers who are looking for the same fame. The idea of the one time Holy Grail of graffiti, a wholly painted train, all ten cars - may not be so elusive anymore, thanks to the Police Benevolent Association of New York.
*HEADER CREDIT: Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images