Home Subway History Looking back at the battle against subway graffiti

Looking back at the battle against subway graffiti

by Benjamin Kabak

A Q train, tagged. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

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.

A memento I picked up at a street fair in the late 1980s is a relic of another era. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

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.

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Moses June 10, 2013 - 12:14 am

Why am I not at all surprised at the particular tag.

John-2 June 10, 2013 - 1:41 am

A combination of a lack of effective, cheap spray paint remover and an MTA mindset in the critical 1970-72 period combined to unleash the graffiti plague on the system, to the point that if you were dashing down a staircase to a waiting train on a platform that served more than one line, you werem’t quite sure if you were getting on an E or an F, or a 4 or a 5, until you were inside the car (and even the insides of some cars were bombed to the point the route sign was obscured. Norman Mailer may have thought it was high art; Norman Mailer didn’t have to ride the subway every day.

Meanwhile, you got the feeling when it first starting happening on a large scale at the end of 1970 (as opposed to the tiny “Taki 183” style of marker graffiti) Bill Ronan thought “Great! This gives me an excuse to justify repainting all the older cars in the MTA corporate colors!“, as opposed to, you know, actually trying to clean the spray paint off the original or second-generation railcar paint jobs. The agency just seemed to shrug it’s shoulders, say “nothing can be done” and just kept repainting and repainting the cars until about 1978, when they came up with the “graffiti resistant” orange paint scheme (which still wasn’t keeping anyone from spray painting the cars; it just meant the paint held up to the occasional cleaning attempts better.

I’d probably give Gov. Cuomo and his appointment of the Kiley-Gunn duo a little more credit for beginning the system’s turnaround. The Goetz incident — especially all the images sent out nationwide of the graffitied subway car — highlighted the problem, but the efforts to dig the system out from its embarrassing lows were already underway with the orders of the R-62/R-62A cars (which may look like sardine cans, but in the era they were ordered in, were easier to wipe clean of graffiti).

BrooklynBus June 10, 2013 - 10:28 am

One point you stated is incorrect. The Goetz shooting in December 1984 had nothing to do with the stepping up of efforts to clear the subways of grafitti. David Gunn told me in April 1984 that he would get rid of graffiti because it sent the wrong message that the MTA was not in control of the system. That bothered him more than the fact it looked ugly.

VLM June 10, 2013 - 10:30 am

Are you actually denying that the Goetz shooting had “nothing to do with” cleaning up the system? As Ben notes, the effort to eliminate graffiti started before the incident, but the MTA kicked it into overdrive afterwards. Hard to imagine anyone disputing that position today. Get real.

BrooklynBus June 10, 2013 - 11:54 am

You are really unbelievable. I am relaying a personal conversation I had with David Gunn and you are doubting me.From speaking to him I could tell how committed he was to ridding the system of grafitti before the Goetz incident. I am unaware of any efforts to kick it into overdrive after that incident. You and Ben are relying on second-hand information whie I am relying on first hand information which I believe to be more reliable.

The only thing that changed after the Goetz incident was the start of the effort to remove grafitti from the stations themselves, once the stations were mostly clean, which was also largely completed. I say not fully competed because grafitti from the 1980s has still not been removed from the open cuts of the Brighton and Sea Beach Line. There is still grafitti above all the subway stations on the Sea Beach Line as well as between the stations of all the open cut lines.

VLM June 10, 2013 - 11:59 am

If only we all could remember verbatim everything that happened 29 years ago.

BrooklynBus June 10, 2013 - 10:26 pm

I have no problem remembering what happened a long time ago if it was something that interested me. It’s the recent stuff that gives me problems.

Pamela Rice June 10, 2013 - 5:16 pm

I’m always amazed at how blind we can all be to the most blatantly obvious state of affairs. When our youth mark up public property in an understandable response to being shut out of the system, we call it graffiti. But when corporate giants mar our subways end to end with advertising that insults us to the core, we swallow it whole. Why do we put up with the corporate defacement, really? Tell you the truth, I’d much rather see the kids’ graffiti. At least It carries an energetic fighting spirit. Raise your freak flag high, young bloods. Fight the corporatocracy that is all around us.

Chris C June 10, 2013 - 5:47 pm

So the wanton damage to pubic property by a bored teen is ‘understandable’ is it?

Not to me it’s not. It’s still damage and someone has to pay for it to be fixed.

They are only shut out of the system because they shut themselves out. I’m sure there are many advocacy and other groups they could join and make a positive contribution rather than just damaging things.

As to the advertising the $$ that they pay to advertise on the subway helps to pay for the subway to run (oh and to remove that ‘understandable’ graffiti)

And how many of those ‘young bloods’ with their ‘energetic fighting spirit’ have and will be killed doing their ‘understandable’ graffiti?

AG June 10, 2013 - 6:18 pm

That is ridiculous… the corportations who “mar” our subways are actually HELPING PAY FOR IT through advertising dollars. If the graffiti writers wanted to pay the free market value that would be another story… but they don’t because they are vagrants. I grew up with graffiti artists – and there was nothing of value in it… it was about rebelling against society.

Mark July 26, 2013 - 12:33 am

Completely agree with you Pamela. Thank you for trying to see a writers viewpoint of the society that surrounds them instead of just judging us all to be worthless ‘mindless’ vandals or ‘vagrants’as AG states in a comment below.*I whole heartedly salute you* On a daily basis we’re bombarded left,right & centre with corporate adverts in our cities & transportation that ‘pollute’ our minds selling often material,expensive things. I used to sometimes write this at the side of many of my old graffiti pieces just to express my opinion as it sums up my attitude to a lot of ‘in your face’ corporate advertising…buy this! Buy that! ‘We buy shit that we don’t need-with money we don’t have- to impress people we don’t like’….A society completely free of graffiti to me is a very dull & drab society…I quote ‘graffiti is the last form of uncensored free speech…power to the people’….its not like graffiti is killing anyone *accidents have indeed happened though* but at least writers ‘bomb’ using paint/markers. They could be ‘bombing’middle eastern countries killing thousands of innocent kids & people in the process further deviding & separating the human race….but that’s another entirely different topic to discuss which goes far deeper than graffiti….but hope I’m making my point. Damage to property seems to be of more importantance these days than damage/abuse to a person

JustAnotherNewYorker June 10, 2013 - 6:38 pm

I’m not nostalgic for the sorry state of the system, the danger (I recall it well) and the general feeling that the stations had been abandoned, but I do recall that some of the cars were works of art (although most were not).

Ben–have you had any of the MTA people in charge of the anti graffiti work at your sessions at the museum?

I wonder if the transit museum would ever considering taking a train in service in the 19702/early 1980s and allowing some of the “graffiti artists” from that era to decorate it and then put it on display. It might not illustrate the system at its finest, but would fairly show the system of that era.

Benjamin Kabak June 10, 2013 - 6:41 pm

Ben–have you had any of the MTA people in charge of the anti graffiti work at your sessions at the museum?

I haven’t, but I like this idea. I may pitch for the fall/winter once I have a sense of how many dates we’re doing.

JustAnotherNewYorker June 10, 2013 - 6:46 pm

I did ask you about what you are doing for the fall at the session last week: Glad I could have a constructive suggestion.

D. Harrison June 10, 2013 - 8:52 pm

Shooting a group of teenagers for doing subway graffiti is not called for. Guns are the problem in America. We are more civilized in England and that would not have happened here. It probably stopped the graffiti and Bernard Goetz spent a long time in prison.

BrooklynBus June 10, 2013 - 10:29 pm

I don’t believe grafitti had anything to do with the shooting. I thought he was being harassed and that’s why he shot them.

Chris C June 11, 2013 - 11:46 am

Correct – the incident started over a ‘request’ for money and not because anyone was doing graffiti.

He didn’t spend a ‘long time in prison’.

From the wiki page on Bernhard Goetz –

“He was sentenced to six months in jail, one year’s psychiatric treatment, five years’ probation, 200 hours community service, and a fine of $5,000. He appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the conviction and ordered a resentencing for a period of one year in jail without probation.”

BrooklynBus June 11, 2013 - 1:48 pm

Thanks for the research. I love the way some people attempt to rewrite history. And VLM questions my long term memory. I thought his prison sentence was rather short.

Zach June 16, 2013 - 1:42 am

I am shocked to learn that graffiti and scratchiti are supposed to be things infrequently seen. As a child, I rode the J/Z and saw tons of graffiti both inside and outside the cars. Even today on the same lines, as well as the E trains on Queens Boulevard, I see such.

Mark July 25, 2013 - 11:43 pm

The graffiti that appeared on New Yorks subways in the 70’s/80’s has in modern times influenced so many others to ‘pick up the can’on a world wide scale & given so many an important & quite often powerful voice using an aerosol can as their tool. Even those who question this forever controversal ‘ART or VANDALISM’ subject can not deny or completely ignore its cultural impact. Its broken so many racial & cultural barriers,as well as blow up the often stuffy art world & really is a positive beautiful thing when those little simplistic early scrawls or tags can sometimes truly turn into something much bigger & transform & mutate into one big beautiful colourful butterfly if the writer/artist pushes him/herself to the next level & continues to progress & move forward with their much loved craft/artform. Indeed many of the writers from NYC’s ‘old school subway golden era’ are now internationally aclaimed artists who managed to ‘escape their ghetto hell’ & found their much sort after’fame’. Famous quote from writer ‘BRIM’ of TAT crew on Henry Chalfonts now legendary 1982 hip hop/graffiti documentry STYLE WARS summed up the war on graffiti in the mayor Koch era….’Its not that they don’t like Graffiti…its just that they don’t like something they can’t control’….another quote from writer MARE 139 went something along the lines of-‘they may have taken our trains away….but we gave something to the world’….

Louis Fontana May 21, 2016 - 8:57 am

I started writing Graffiti in 1982 ,by 83 I was going to train lay ups and yards each year I went more and more often ,by 85 I was going to the train lay ups some weeks 3 weeknights and then on the weekend , I also hit the Sanition Garage on Bayparkway in 85 one Sunday morning catching a few dozen trucks ,, I stopped on the Trains in 1986 as many of the well known writers did , basically in 87 and 88 newer writers started taking advantage of the fact they were less likely now to run into writers that they were scared of although a handfull of guys either came back or stuck around till the very end many to take photos of there work on the trains ,, Myself in 86 after the trains I moved on to doing murals on walls ,handball courts ,hiways ect ,, by 1988 I was done all together , but thanks to Graffiti from age 12 to 16 thats what kept me out of real trouble ,, as it did many other kids , for me Graffiti introduced me to all areas of NYC and I met alot of people I would never of had if not for our common interest writers of all races and color , I was never prejudice and through Graffiti I made some good friends of all races , and who would have thought that today my Graffiti is in books being published , on websites and writers that write today know of me , I never thought that far ahead but for certain I did not think it would take off the way it did years after the nyc graff train era .

RP February 4, 2021 - 1:12 am

Just to make it clear how the justice works today :
For writing ( graffiti ) you can get 5+ years in prison, after you shoot a group of teenagers you are free in 2 or 3 years. Well done.
Nowadays we are sitting on subway cars or on buses covered full with garbage advertisements… I am not saying that the fully ‘bombed’ subway car is better, but when you see a nice graffiti ART on the train that makes some or a big impact on you. But not the advertisements.

BrooklynBus February 4, 2021 - 7:28 am

Yes, a small portion of the graffiti may be prettier than the wraps, but any graffiti is done without permission and is therefore not unlawful and vandalism that needs to be punished because removal costs valuable resources. And Bernie Goetz was defending himself which he had a right to do which is why he was found not guilty of manslaughter. The 8 months he served was for carrying an unlicensed firearm.


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