Subway Outlaws is a rich, complex site about the work and history of NYC’s aerosol graffiti artists. There’s a lot of sadness in it, starting with an RIP page for dead graffiti artists—the term they use is “writers”—that’s an appalling 130 names long.
The lifestyle was hard. Some writers were throwaways or runaways, living wherever they could. Almost all of them were out stealing paint, sneaking into subway yards and tunnels at all hours, and getting into fights with other writers over territory, real and imagined slights, and raids on each others’ paint supplies. They tell wild stories about escape attempts, successful and otherwise, when the police showed up. Although their joy was great when they saw a car they’d painted in use in the subway system, in effect a traveling billboard for their work, there was always a good chance that the cars they’d just gone to so much trouble to paint were going to immediately get hauled into maintenance and buffed straight down to the metal, so that no one would ever see what they did.
(Speaking as a subway rider, I think it would have helped if they hadn’t spraypainted over the windows, and written tags on the subway maps inside the cars. Back then, the MTA’s rolling stock was no prize to start with. You’d have to be a real grump to object to graffiti’s decorative aspect. It was the impaired functionality that was the problem. Okay, that plus the small-scale tags all over everything.)
It all got cleaned up eventually. Some of the guys who did it are still painting, doing murals or working on canvas, but the old wild days have been obliterated. All they have left are their memories and photos. Thus their interest in preserving their own history.
When you read their recollections, two things come through loud and clear: their abiding love for their close friends who shared their adventures and collaborated on their art, and their astonished sense of wonder and desire when they began to understand what they could do with a bunch of spraycans and a blank subway car. It would be beautiful. It would be theirs. And, if they were lucky, everyone in the city would see it.
Just to clarify things: I’m not sorry that it’s no longer possible to cover every available surface in NYC with pointless repetitive tags drawn in heavy magic marker. I am sorry that the city’s full of kids who don’t have better ways to express themselves. But whatever else you want to say about it, the work done by the best of the subway car artists was remarkable.