Sunday, December 07, 2008

1970's NYC Subway Graffiti

For anyone who doesn't live here, you should know that the subway is synonymous with New York. Millions of us ride it every single day, and we complain about it to each other just as often. Besides walking, it's the main method of transportation in this city. Well, the 70's weren't kind to the subway, or to most of us. I remember when I was a kid, I had a t-shirt that said "I rode the New York City subway... AND SURVIVED!" Being about eight, I thought that was really funny at the time. But it was true - the subways were dirty, dangerous, poorly maintained and covered in graffiti.

Graffiti exploded after the budget crisis of 1975 hit, when the agency basically ran out of money, was not allowed to raise fares (they already had, dramatically, earlier in the decade) and was faced with falling ridership at the same time. Everything got worse. Maintenance wasn't done to either the trains or the infrastructure and cleaning basically never happened. The whole system started looking ragged, worn and abused. Trains broke down routinely - I remember being stuck on a powerless (and therefore a/c-less) A train near Howard Beach in the dead of summer for 3 hours. There was a sense that the system was dying and that nobody cared about saving it, and out of that, the graffiti movement grew.

Crews formed that "bombed" the trains as they sat unprotected in the yards overnight. There were literally thousands of these crews, though a few like Lee, Futura 2000 and Crunch went on to infamy and even eventual legitimate fame. (Here's a list of more than 3,000 graffiti crews from the 1970's.) In the mornings, MTA workers would arrive to find their assigned, previously clean trains often covered front to back by graffiti. Including the windows!

Most of this graffiti was ugly - I've so far shown some of the nicer examples (the one above was by Futura 2000). Some teenagers these days see stuff like the photos above and romanticize the whole era. This was a more typical train:

It was just an ugly mess.

Interiors were not immune either. Most subway interiors were covered in tags - not the elaborate murals of the exteriors, just random names scrawled by kids with nothing better to do. These weren't painted as the cars sat idle, they were usually written on late-night trips in mostly empty cars, although sometimes you'd see kids writing graffiti right in broad daylight in a crowded car.

That advertisement on the wall strikes me as ironic on several different levels.

Graffiti was one of those crimes that added to the sense of disorder and anarchy that both encouraged other crimes and made New York kind of a scary place to be. Crime in general was rising in the 1970's, and it was exploding in the subway. By the end of the decade, the number of felonies recorded each day in the New York City subway - including rapes and murders - made it the most dangerous mass transit system in the country.

This went on until the mid-1980's, when the city, state and yes, federal government finally had had enough. Money started flowing into the system again - enough to finally combat graffiti. MTA honcho David Gunn instituted a zero tolerance policy - once a train was cleaned, any new graffiti would be removed immediately at the terminal stop or that train would be taken out of service. Laws were also strengthened, adding prison time to graffiti sentences and making the purchase of spray paint by a minor illegal. The cleanup happened very quickly once it began. By the late 1980's, graffiti in the NYC subway was pretty much gone. Given the scale of the problem, it was pretty amazing.

These days, NYC trains run clean. Even "scratchitti", where taggers would scratch their tags into the glass or the train interior walls using rocks or keys, has been brought under control with the use of replaceable mylar window covers and scratch-proof walls in the newest cars.

The unfortunate thing is that there are still some dumbasses out there, some from Europe and some from the United States, who either don't realize that this era has been over for 20 years, or want to revive it. Every once in a while somebody tries to graffiti bomb a train again. It's really more unfortunate for them, because the zero tolerance policy remains in place, so their work is never seen outside of their own photos. And subway graffiti is a crime NYC cops take seriously these days. These idiots do get caught.

By the way, if you're coming in to this post cold, I am a native New Yorker. I was born here. I rode the trains before there was graffiti on them and I ride them now after. I've been around longer than any of the taggers, and this is my city. These pictures are here because they're historically relevant and interesting in context, not because they're beautiful. So if you're going to argue against what I'm saying here, you'd better at least have as much ownership of the subway as I do. My taxes and fares paid for these trains, as did my parents'. My votes in favor of bond issues approved their purchase. If you can't at least say the same, then keep your arguments in favor of defacing the property I helped purchase to yourself.

And take heed of the comment rules.

Note: the pictures in this post are not mine, though I've had them for long enough that I don't remember exactly where they came from. I believe the first three are from the fascinating book Subway Art:

The others are probably from the site If anyone knows the actual photo credits, I'd be happy to add them.


  1. I ♥ the movie Style Wars. It's all about the late 70s early 80s graffiti artists in NYC. It also features some great breakdancing when it was still a new thing.

  2. Anonymous11:57 AM

    Nice concise article.
    Doing a little home research for the School Edition of "Rent."
    Beautiful photos, yes . . . romanticized.

  3. Anonymous1:43 PM

    I remember no air conditioning, just awful. I also remember when you could buy cigarettes from vending machines in the stations.

  4. Anonymous6:36 PM

    hey, nice article - props for that. Regarding what you wrote however, I think noone's trying to revive that golden era of nyc subway grafitti - it was compressed to the minimum level but it still exists all this time.Grafitti is global and it won't die out. So it's natural that artists coming in from Europe etc., treat themselves to bombing the nyc subway line which is a bust nowadays, making it a real trophy if completed. Same way U.S grafitti artists come to europe to bomb our subways etc.

  5. Anonymous4:14 PM

    I love this pictures you have inspired me to take pictures of the subway system myself. Thank you.


  6. The pictures are not mine - I will change the post to make that clear. The top two are from a book that I took out from the library when I was in college, and the rest are I believe from the excellent I would have credited them at the time but I just had them lying on my hard drive so I am not sure who to even attribute them to, or whether they even really came from where I'm saying they came from or not. But in any case, I did not take them.

  7. Anonymous7:41 PM


  8. I find it hilarious that there are still people on the internet that don't see the irony in reading through an entire blog post, then taking the time to type a comment like "yawn", go through the captcha and hit the submit button.

    Your actions betray your sentiment, anonymous.

  9. Graffiti seems to downgrade a neighborhood real fast, a no tollerace rule is a great rule in this instance.

  10. Anonymous1:11 AM

    graffiti will never die it wont it cant it just cant ima bomber myself yeah so? its addicting ill tell u one can probably start the subway bombing era again but we all know tht it was once alive..still is in some ppls hearts and who cares if your taxes and "fares" go into that if you understand graffiti the way all "US" writers in the world see it then youd actually see that graffiti itself is art yeah its illegal its always going to be but me and every1 who "bombs" wont stop i love graffiti its beautiful ugly or not!!!"Im In Love With Graffiti!!!"

  11. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Re: 1970's Subway Graffiti article/blog...It's a concise and realistic damages report, that briefly depicts some examples of mass transit system property vandalism, committed by graffiti Artists and 'taggers'...TO EVERY STREET ARTIST...BE WISE...PUT YOUR AD/ART/DESIGN/STATEMENT/TAG ON YOUR OWN PIECE OF CANVAS/BOARD/OR ANY TYPE OF ART WORTHY PAPER, THEN SELL IT, OR LEAVE IT, ON THE SUBWAY...GOD BLESS & GOOD FORTUNE TO YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!; "Just Another Artist...


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP