Photo of the Day: The ‘art’ of the 80s

By · Published in 2011

An L train sits at Myrtle Ave. in 1987 (Photo courtesy of NYC Subway)

While researching yesterday’s piece on weekend ridership on the L train, I came across the above photo in the archives of NYCSubway.org, and it’s a great glimpse into the past. The train is clearly being held at a red signal as riders are peering into the tunnel to see why they’re not going anywhere, and the outside is absolutely covered in graffiti. The photo is only 24 years old, but a lot of has changed underground since then. We have a long way to go yet.

Categories : Subway History

14 Responses to “Photo of the Day: The ‘art’ of the 80s”

  1. Dave 'Paco' Abraham says:

    The car is beautifully filthy yet amazingly the station looks clean. Sometimes i feel like its the exact reverse nowadays.

    • Christopher says:

      That’s my station and I have to say it’s pretty damn spotless. I don’t know why that station is so regularly cleaned, with floors washed, but it’s one of the cleanest I visit in the system. Who ever is in charge of station cleanliness at Myrtle is doing a hell of a job.

  2. Jerrold says:

    Yes, I remember those disgusting days VERY well.

  3. John-2 says:

    Since the windows on this car aren’t painted over, this actually doesn’t represent the worst of the 1972-88 graffiti period (a period which also frequently included the L single-tracking on weekends between Third Ave. and Eighth Ave., because they were storing cars on the Eighth Ave.-bound track. Imagine trying to get away with that stunt today given the increased usage on the line).

    • BrooklynBus says:

      Actually the grafitti started a little earlier than that. It was around 1968 when the interiors of the cars were painted with black magic markers. Around 1970, they switched to spray paint of various colors. In 1972, they started attacking the stations and in the following year the outside of the subway trains, and as they say the rest is history.

      All that time until 1984, the NYCT was ignoring the problem. I still have a NY Times article from the early 70s where a reporter asked the MTA why they weren’t doing anything about the problem. Their response was that it was a passing fad which will stop without any intervention. Another one of the TA’s predictions that didn’t come true, like it wil be impossible to air condition the subways.

      • John Paul N. says:

        Do you have the date and headline? I’d love to read about it.

        But I’ve found 2 other articles that I find enlightening:

        “Subway Graffiti Campaign Given Lower Priority; Transit Authority Efforts Called Failures Because of Lenient Judges”, August 7, 1975:

        A youthful army of spray-gun commandos estimated at no more than 400 has not only painted scrawls on nearly all of the 6,700 subway cars; it has also painted the Transit Authority into a corner.

        According to [Transit Authority senior executive officer John G.] de Roos, a vigorous campaign of arresting the offenders – usually teenagers and sub-teens from low-income areas – had been nullified by lenient judges.

        He added: “What we found out in cleaning off the paint was that it merely provided them with a clean slate, and they were putting the graffiti right back on.”

        A short-lived drive to force arrested offenders to do the clean-up work themselves misfired because it became a television spectacular and the culprits appeared on camera like “heroes,” Mr. de Roos said.

        “Subway Graffiti Here Called Epidemic,” February 11, 1972:

        Once confined principally to car and station advertising placards – because they were most easliy marked by ball-point pens – the onslaught of ink and paint has spread to steel and tile walls, to route maps in cars, to station ceilings and to trackside walls reachable only through subway car windows or by standing between the cars of a stopped train.

        So acute has the problem become that authority crews attack graffiti by content. “We go for the obscenity first, [superintendent of rapid transit Frank T.] Berry said, “then anything racist. Then we go back and get the innocuous identification stuff.” Identification graffiti involve a name and several numbers, usually the writer’s home address or the street on which he lives.

        Psychologists say graffiti are an attempt by insignificant people to impose their identity on others, if only until the wall is cleaned.

        The police are hampered, they say, by a lack of laws governing this kind of vandalism. At present, youthful offenders – and almost every graffiti offender is a teen-ager – are given youth referral cards. This means that the police send someone around to talk to the young scrawler’s parents. More than 100 of these cards have been handed out by Transit Authority police since Jan. 1.

        Philadelphia, which some of its officials call the graffiti capital of the nation…

        Back to the present, the emerging problem is the mutilation of station advertisements with boxcutters. It was bad when I saw through the Nostrand Avenue C station yesterday. But the Williamsburg and Bushwick L stations have more of the press coverage on this problem. Gothamist has a nickname for the offender that I can’t recall now.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          Sorry, the article is buried somewhere. Can’t remember if it was a news article or a Letter to the Editor from a high TA official in response to an article about grafitti. Your 1972 article sounds just about right how the TA reacted. But you have to remember one thing. When we think of subway grafitti today, we mainly think of the outside of subway cars. That article was written before that even started which shows how big of a problem it was even before 1972. It wasn’t something that just started overnight. If the TA did something about it sooner instead of virtually ignoring the problem except for cleaning the stations occasionally before just giving up, it never would have gotten so bad.

      • John-2 says:

        The omnipresece of the ‘Taki 183’ magic marker graffiti by 1971 — he not only hit public places, but even the interior of places like the stairways at Madison Square Garden — seemed to be what emboldened others to take the next step into spray painting buildings, and then subway cars.

        Once it became clear the MTA’s only response would be to simply repaint the trains in the agency’s Bill Ronan-approved corporate colors, the spray paint fad exploded by the end of 1972, and remained that way until the Kiley-Gunn regime took it on starting in ’84 (the MTA did come up with the supposedly more durable interior paint in 1978 that would stand up to repeated cleanings, which is when the orange cars debuted on the system. But that, or Ed Koch’s guard dogs, or the white exterior cars, never tried to deal head-on with the problem, and just assume graffiti was systemic and ultamately impossible to eliminate completely).

        • BrooklynBus says:

          Taki 183 was the first one to start using spray paint taking grafitti to a whole new level but magic markers on the inside of trains were way out of control by then. David Gunn deserves the entire credit for the removal of grafitti. I had a personal one on one conversation with him in 1984 three weeks after he assumed the Presidency and he told me he was going to make grafitti removal his highest priority. He said that what bothered him the most was not how ugly it looked but that it showed everyone “we are not in control of the system.”. He said one other interesting thing. That if he knew beforehand how difficult the job of NYCTA President was, he never would have taken the job because someone always has an excuse why anything you want to do cannot be done. Coming from him, that was surprising.

  4. capt subway says:

    Ah the good old days. I remember them well. I was doing three trips out of Wdl on the #4 back then. Things were terrible but……..I was 30 years younger. So it was great!

  5. John Paul N. says:

    I don’t exactly know how I became interested in the subways. It couldn’t have been at this time, when I would have taken my first subway ride with my parents as I was 6 (perhaps my first ride was years earlier), and this would have been the kind of train I rode on, in fact, from the DeKalb L station. I guess it explains why my interest is in routes rather than in the rolling stock.

  6. Al D says:

    I’m going to guess that the L in the picture was also 4 cars.

  7. Anne Berry says:

    To those who would argue that the NYCTA did little about the graffiti in the early 1970s, I suggest you dig deeper into the TA archives. The leaders of the TA did as much as they could but their budgets were stretched to the breaking point, and when choices had to be made they chose to focus on on-time train performance as opposed to graffiti clean up which was a losing proposition. The Daily News was running graffiti contests (!!) and the TA could only do so much. I know this because the head of operations and maintenance (referred to in the Feb 1972 article) was my father, Frank Berry. Believe me he was steamed up about the graffiti, but lacking adequate funding and city support, the TA’s efforts could only go so far. But we sure heard about it at the dinner table! And then there was that time we thought it would be funny to paint my parents’ initials inside a heart on the telephone pole at edge of our yard. Dad didn’t see the joke. That was the end of our graffiti careers.

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