While waiting for a Manhattan-bound Q train this Saturday, a rare sight crossed the tracks on the opposite side. The Coney Island-bound train that pulled into 7th Ave. had been tagged. Twenty five years ago, a train with some graffiti on it wouldn’t have been newsworthy, but since a late 1980s/early 1990s effort to clean up the subway, trains on the tracks with tags are a rare sight indeed.
As I pondered this train that passed through, I thought back to the trains of my childhood. While the worst of the tagging and the days in which the authorities seemed to cede the subways to graffiti came before my earliest memories, I remember the colorful trains that served as canvases for prominent street artists and troublemaking hooligans alike. As a young child, I was captivated by the colors, but even then, I sensed it was part of the image of the subways that made them seem dangerous.
The war on graffiti though started when I was approaching my second birthday. The tipping point seemed to come on December 22, 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot a group of teenagers on the subway. Transit authority officials, who had long recognized the need to improve the public perception of the subways, had recently launched an aggressive campaign to clean up the subways, but the Goetz shooting, for better or worse, seemed to spur the city into action. At the time of the incident, approximately 80 percent of subway cars featured some graffiti inside the cars, and the outsides were still widely used as blank slates for the city’s spray painters.
Three years later, the tide had seemingly turned. A Straphangers report issued in 1987 found the TA inching toward a fleet with 75 percent of cars free of markings. The original car wash efforts were plagued with scandal, but by May of 1988, the MTA could proclaim a year-end target for a graffiti-free system.
By the middle of 1989, the MTA commemorated a graffiti-free system, and since then, graffiti has been more of a curiosity than a problem. Throughout the 1990s, The Times, for one, continued to proclaim the return of graffiti (1991, 1996, 1999), but the transit authority remained aggressive in combatting the problem. Whenever a car was reported bombed or tagged, the TA would take it over service for a rigorous cleaning, and the graffiti would infrequently roll down the tracks.
By the mid-2000s, a new form of vandalism had taken root: scratchiti. Instead of spray paint, taggers were using etching tools and acid to mar windows and stainless steel surfaces. Since then, though, treatment — including scratch-resistant window shields — has minimized the problem. Nowadays, the cars are free from graffiti, and we remember a different era through full-color photos and coffee table books.
Graffiti and its glory days still strikes our imagination though. A post I wrote in 2009 discussion the debate over graffiti’s value as art vs. the act vandalism remains one of the highest-trafficked posts on the site, and a significant portion of the commentary on the history of graffiti has taken pains to make a distinction between the art of the late 1970s and the tagging for tagging’s sake that grew in popularity in the early 1980s. It’s also been a tough balancing act, but city officials have rightly refused to sanction graffiti in any form now or over the past three or four decades. Today, graffiti on subway cars and sanitation trucks is more a sign of a bygone era than anything else, and spying a tagged car on the tracks is nearly newsworthy in a way a clean car was twenty-five years ago.