Fighting People’s Art in N.Y.C.

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Fighting People’s Art in N.Y.C.

by David Chidakel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 6, November/December 1976, p. 19

In a bizarre struggle, little known outside of New York City, the N.Y.C. Transit Authority (T.A.) is waging war against the kids. It all began in the late sixties when dilapidated subway cars, in service for thirty-five years and more, began to get elaborate midnight paint jobs signed with names like “Jose” and “Mo.” Using aerosol spray paint, kids in the Bronx, Brooklyn and elsewhere proved themselves more resourceful than the T.A. cops by their continuing ability to penetrate the yards and sidings where the trains are kept at night. As a result the dirty iron-rust patinas gave way to polychromatic garlands and graffiti. A whole new genre of people’s art developed which can be seen daily, streaking along over endless tenements, dingy schools, and traffic jams. 

Although some riders and residents found the graffiti a bit much, it was the T.A. management that really freaked. Unhindered by latent appreciation of the aesthetics of subway decoration, they instituted an acid car-washing program said to cost nearly ten million dollars. This involved moving the rolling stock through a process at great risk to the “motormen” and workers who have to breathe the spray and fumes. An assessment of these conditions was reported by Spark magazine:

For two days this fall, an apparently healthy mouse was placed on the ground in a cage and exposed to the fumes of the car wash. Total exposure was approximately four hours. No immediate signs of illness were noted. The mouse was then removed to a house whereupon he died two weeks later.1 

Now, with union grievances and demands growing around the slapdash attitude toward worker safety under the carwash program, the T.A. has initiated a new phase in its campaign against graffiti. Subway cars are to be painted with a new, urethane-based paint which does not absorb the dyes from the graffiti paint and which is less vulnerable to the corrosive solvents used to remove the graffiti. The paint however will be three times more costly than normal paint, and the routine cleaning operation will be “three to four times more expensive.2

While horrendous noise intensities and high levels of asbestos (from subway brake shoes) and steel dust (from wheels and rails) continue to plague subway riders and transit workers,3 the money-strapped T.A. is forging ahead to protect the people’s eyes from people’s art …. Chances are the kids will figure out what urethane- and epoxy-based paints can do for them in dealing with the adversities of subway art.

>>  Back to Vol. 8, No. 6  <<


  1. “New York City Subway Project,” Spark, Fall, 1975, p. 11.
  2. “Paint Helps Fight Subway Graffiti,” New York Times, May 25, 1976.
  3. “New York City Subway Project,” Spark, Fall, 1975, p. 11.