Noah Brier | February 8, 2023

The Subway Art Edition

On graffiti, New York, and Futura

Recommended Products

Subway Art
Subway Art

Originally published in 1984, Subway Art is the ultimate documentation of the graffiti art movement in NYC during the 1980s.

Noah here. I don’t remember how it came to be, but at some point, I got my hands on the classic tome of 1980s graffiti, Subway Art. Originally published in 1984, it was (and still is) the ultimate documentation of what is probably the most iconic art movement NYC has ever produced: graffiti. 

I still have my original copy (from a reprint run), and it has held up remarkably well despite the many hours I spent leafing through its pages full of brightly painted subway cars. Many of the painters featured in the book, like Lady Pink and Futura, now have hugely successful legal art careers. 

Why is this interesting?

The year Subway Art came out, 1984, also marked the beginning of the end for the art form. That’s when the city got new Kawasaki R62 trains and a mandate to keep them clean. From a paper on the history of graffiti in NYC:

In April 1984, David Gunn, the new president of the NYCTA, announced the Authority's Clean Car Program (CCP). All new and overhauled cars would be placed in the program. Once placed in the CCP, no car would remain in service if it was vandalized. To implement and maintain the CCP, Gunn created the Car Appearance and Security Task Force (CAST), which represented 15 separate NYCTA departments.

At its initiation in May 1984, two trains were placed into the CCP: One train was composed of new R62 Kawasaki cars on the #4 line, and another, of 20- year-old reconditioned and repainted R36 St. Louis cars on the #7 line. On May 12, 1989, 5 years later, the last graffiti-covered car was removed from service and cleaned.

And so the book by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant ended up becoming the last and most complete document of an incredibly influential movement. (That’s not to say graffiti on walls wasn’t important or continued, but the train cars + paint captures a particular moment.) And while I know there are lots of reasons it was good to clear the paint off the trains, I also still find myself picking Subway Art off my bookshelf to leaf through its pages. (NRB)  

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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