After a long history of trying to erase graffiti art from its Subways, New York City has now begun to embrace the paintings of its transit halls. Color brightens the dim industrial spaces, brightening it, bringing light to the bright works. In the last 30 years, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has commissioned 300 works of art across five boroughs, and what’s great about these commissions is that they’re meant to reflect the specific site they’re in and its architecture.
But for a long time, New York wanted its subways free of graffiti. In 1972 then-mayor John Lindsay declared a “War on Graffiti,” and the city spent millions of dollars over the next two decades to try and get rid of all graffiti. As a result, a kind of war over public space emerged, over which artists risked their freedom and work to create art.
Happily, the tables are turning on public art. MTA keeps a small amount of money in its budget to finance subway artwork, a “recognition that we’re spending significant sums on improvements and want to give people something that’s aesthetically pleasing,” says Lester Burg, senior manager of MTA Arts and Design.
People are noticing the changes and appreciating the art MTA puts there. “I first noticed these small figures by Tom Otterness years ago when I was a graduate student at NYU,” says Gina Fuentes Walker, a Manhattan artist. “I still love to look at them while waiting for the train.”
Now, many of the renovated stations keep their art proudly on display with laminated glass screen window panels, to protect them and to keep them vibrant. Artists are excited to create works of art that enter into people’s everyday lives. Xenobia Bailey, a fiber artist from Harlem, was chosen to fill two ceilings at the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station, the first new one to open in 25 years.
“It’s the cosmos,” Bailey says of her work, brightly colored and vivid. “I wanted the pieces to be motivating like the sunrise, sunset, and shooting stars. I wanted to design something with a similar ambience that would inspire an invigorating state of being.”
If you’re hopping on a subway in town today, be sure to take a long look at the art waiting for you there!