Home View from Underground A guerrilla art attack targeting subway etiquette

A guerrilla art attack targeting subway etiquette

by Benjamin Kabak

Riding the subway is the most social of personal actions in the city. We try to pretend that millions of other people aren’t doing the same thing every day, and yet, packed subway cars and station platforms teeming with other straphangers are a testament to the fact that, while we want to spend our commutes alone, we simply cannot underground.

With so many other people around to provide a social check on behavior, I’m often astounded at how flat-out rude other subway riders are. People hog seats, block doors, stand in front of turnstiles and don’t give way to fast walkers on staircases. Those with iPods play music at volumes loud enough to hear from 20 feet away. Others use video game consoles without lowering the volume. Some people use the subways as their personal garbage cans. It can be tiring.

Over the last few months, I’ve tackled subway ethics and the way we ride on more than one occasion. In addition to my story about a father’s attempts to kick his daughter’s discarded chicken fingers and fries under her seat, I’ve looked at those who abuse emergency exits, those who do not give up seats to the aged, infirm or pregnant, those who grope others. The subways are fraught with people too unaware of their surroundings to be courteous toward their fellow passengers.

Yesterday, a guerrilla artist started to take matters into his own hands. Jayshells printed 40 silk screen editions of 10 mock service advisories and labeled them as products of the Metropolitan Etiquette Authority. He will spend the week hanging them in subway cars and stations through the city as reminders of how we should behave underground. Animal New York caught up with the artist and has a slideshow of each of the posters. He spoke about the creative process:

I surveyed 100 people on their top pet-peeves (not service related) while riding the Subway. I narrowed the results down to the top ten most occurring issues and rewrote them as a sort of list of rules. I designed posters in the style of the Service Changes posters we see everyday and silkscreened about 40 of each (400 total) and am currently putting them up on trains throughout the city, throughout this week. I encourage people to look out for them, and to take them before the MTA does.

New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog also had a chat with Jayshells, real name Jason Shellowitz, who spoke about the illegal nature of his act. “I like to think that the positive nature of the messages will keep me out of trouble,” he said. “Also, I am using removable two-way tape, so they are not permanent, and leave no residue or marks behind.”

Vandalism is vandalism is vandalism, and I’d have to guess that Transit won’t be too thrilled to see these signs pop up. I think, however, that Shellowitz is on to something. The MTA has tried to push PSAs for illegal or blatantly boorish behavior. They urge riders to report sexual untoward actions and ask people to give up seats. But their anti-littering PSAs are laden with ten-cent words and phrases such as “trash receptacles.” There’s a disconnect between the message and its medium. Shellowitz takes the familiar service advisory signs and repackages them into a simple plea for positive and polite interactions amongst straphangers.

Whether his guerrilla act/exhortations will get the message across remains to be seen, but at least it makes people think for a second or two about how they act on the subway. “I’m not sure how much of a difference these will make,” he said to New York Magazine, “but so far, people seem to be enjoying them.”

Photos of the faux-Service Advisories by Jason Shellowitz via Animal New York.

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Rhywun April 21, 2010 - 1:54 am

While I like the message, I agree that vandalism is vandalism.

PS. The colors look wrong.

Scott E April 21, 2010 - 8:03 am

I wouldn’t call this vandalism as much as justified “civil disobedience”. He’s breaking a rule perhaps, but at the same time, he’s attempting to discourage so many more people from doing things that are so much worse. The MTA has two options: they can practice zero-tolerance and go after this guy for vandalism and trademark infringement, or they can embrace his noble efforts and carry the message further in the spirit of achieving the greater good. My gut tells me they’ll make the wrong move and do the former.

(My only gripe with the posters is the line about recycling, since the subways don’t give us provisions to recycle our trash; they sift through and pull out the recyclables afterwards).

Todd April 21, 2010 - 8:58 am

Greater Good > Vandalism. I say bravo!

AK April 21, 2010 - 9:19 am

Rule of Law > Subway Etiquette. We can’t have people posting signs all over subway cars/stations advocating their favorite cause du jour. No matter how much we may agree with his message, the method is appropriately illegal. MTA will promptly take the signs down and issue him a warning, as is customary.

Al D April 21, 2010 - 9:55 am

I would suggest that the MTA turn a blind eye to these postings. These literal interpretations of rules are what gets us into trouble in the first place. These postings can only be helpful.

The postings capture what to me is the new (relatively) phenomenom of blocking the doors which seems an unfortunate byproduct of the NTTs with their wider doors. People on these trains no longer turn sideways to permit ingress/egress as was done out of necessity on the old equipment.

I’m generally polite on the train, but I rarely say excuse me to someone who’s blocking a door. Why? They should not be blocking the door in the first place. So I just go in (or out), and if I hit them along the way, well, that’s the price I guess of blocking the doors.

AK April 21, 2010 - 10:36 am

They cannot turn a blind eye. If they do, they are turning their stations/subway cars into limited public forums which would then be open for other messaging under the First Amendment. It’s a question of simple fairness under the law.

Love the message, but the medium cannot stand.

Aaron April 21, 2010 - 11:45 am

Agree, turn a blind eye and next week there’ll be a lawsuit from teabaggers demanding similar access. It’s the nature of First Amendment law.

Of course, MTA could always bring him on as an independent contractor to do a PR campaign, but… yeah, I don’t see that as happening :).

Scott E April 21, 2010 - 11:48 am

So, when “Jayshells” admits he does it, they should go after him because he’s made himself obvious – but when someone else kicks fried chicken bones under the seat, they let him go because they need to expend effort to LOOK for him? I think not.

The MTA already practices selective enforcement. They should just select the more egregious acts, not the more obvious ones.

AK April 21, 2010 - 12:55 pm

Scott, I hear your argument, but as a matter of constitutional law, the MTA cannot do as you instruct.

petey April 21, 2010 - 11:05 am

“PS. The colors look wrong.”
which may save him some sort of legal trouble, i’m thinking.

Bo April 21, 2010 - 11:15 am

A little wit would go a long way here. Even the MTA is clever in their signage sometimes.

Kid Twist April 21, 2010 - 11:16 am

He can buy ad space in the subway to spread his message like everyone else. By taping signs up, he’s imposing himself on other people and showing utter disregard for his surroundings. In other words, he’s doing exactly what he’s complaining about.

AK April 21, 2010 - 12:55 pm

Concur, well said.

Todd April 21, 2010 - 4:03 pm

Now that’s a good idea. Maybe set up a PayPal donation site. I’d put my money where my mouth is on this one.

JE April 21, 2010 - 11:20 am

While I agree regarding the subway food disposal issue, I wonder: do you eat food at your seat when taking in a ballgame? If so,what do you do with that trash?

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2010 - 11:23 am

Different contexts. It’s socially acceptable to leave food trays behind at a ballpark. That’s how the stadium is cleaned and stadium garbage cans can’t hold all of the food trays if people threw out everything on their own.

It’s not at all socially acceptable to drop your fries and chicken fingers on the floor and then try to hide it by grinding it into a mush and kicking it under the seat.

JE April 21, 2010 - 11:44 am

Washington Metro bans the consumption of food and drink. Is that a possible solution for the MTA? (Or at least ban food?)

Aaron April 21, 2010 - 11:54 am

I could cope with no food but I’d hate to be riding a hot subway car in the summer w/ no drink. Bluntly, WMATA runs carpeted trains with cushioned seats, wiping the occasional spilt coffee of of tile and plastic is a lot easier than getting it out of WMATA”s cushions.

Alon Levy April 21, 2010 - 5:55 pm

In Singapore, it’s illegal to bring food or drink on the subway. The subways are air conditioned and so are the underground stations, but the elevated stations are not air conditioned. The trains’ seats are hard plastic, like in New York.

Scott E April 21, 2010 - 11:58 am

I thought that any beverage (not just alcohol) that didn’t have a cover were banned from the subway, but I couldn’t find that regulation anywhere. Conversely, some might say alcohol consumption is encouraged on the commuter rails, as it keeps drinkers on the rails rather than on the roads. (Hey, they sell alcohol on the platforms and even on some trains!)

SEAN April 21, 2010 - 12:01 pm

I often wondered about that as well. If you want to lower the chances of rodents infiltrading the subway, you must ban all food & drink unless it remains unopened.

JE April 21, 2010 - 3:14 pm

“That’s how the stadium is cleaned and stadium garbage cans can’t hold all of the food trays if people threw out everything on their own.”
So what if the stadium operators provided larger garbage cans? Would you consider walking your trash to one of those receptacles? After all, littering is still littering.
And if food consumption on the subways is not prohibited, why are the cars not equipped with trash bins?

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2010 - 3:17 pm

But what you described at a sports event just isn’t littering. What the people do in the subway when they throw trash in cars, on the ground or in the tracks is littering. That’s a huge technical differences, no?

JE April 21, 2010 - 3:40 pm

From the FIFA World Cup web page (http://bit.ly/U2hS):

“5. Common Sense Conduct Inside the Stadium:”

“5.4 All Stadium Visitors and Accredited Persons are requested not to drop litter, packaging or empty containers, but to dispose of such items in the appropriate litter bins inside the Stadium.”

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2010 - 3:42 pm

This is still an apples-to-oranges comparison. You’re talking about a FIFA World Cup stadium and rules that apply to South Africa. I’m talking about the subways. That’s also a anti-litter request while on the subways, it’s the law. What do the rules say at, say, Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden and how does that relate to the illegality of littering underground?

JE April 21, 2010 - 3:54 pm

Still checking the other venues, Ben!

To repeat: I am not justifying the smooshing of chicken fingers with one’s feet. Still, I am surprised that subway food consumption is permitted, yet there are no trash receptacles in any of the cars. (Compare with Amtrak, for example.)

JE April 21, 2010 - 4:21 pm

FWIW, I found no anti-litter policies at NYS, Citi Field, Giants Stadium, or MSG.

Anon April 21, 2010 - 10:20 pm

The worst is people who hover by the stairs with their cell phones.

Vandal Squad April 26, 2010 - 2:25 pm

This is vandalism and when I catch you, you’ll be sent straight to jail and possibly spend 10 years in prison. You mess with our subways, we will find a way to mess you up.

Angel April 26, 2010 - 9:43 pm

I think this is a great idea something I thought about but never did.
It’s great to think that people would change but we’re talking about humans here. People with habits, culture and innate behavior. The people who throw trash on the streets are the same ones doing it on the trains. Think of it this way, people know what they’re doing. That wanna be hip hop singer know that their music is to high. And the person eating a full course dinner is smelling up the cart. New Yorker just don’t give a shit. One time I actually had to push a person who was getting on so I can get off. Thats one great thing I love about working from home, I dont have to deal with the trains. The worse part is that the city continues to develop with no where to fit these people. I use to take the L train and now by the time the train get to Wyckoff its packed. Sorry Bedford start walking….

An etiquette campaign in Toronto, inspired by NYC :: Second Ave. Sagas April 30, 2010 - 12:02 pm

[…] Shelowitz, the man behind the guerrilla art subway etiquette posters, is inspiring some copy cats. After Jayshells’ posters earned some headlines last week, […]


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