Posts Tagged ‘subway art’

Trainyard still from Style Wars

Like most people, I had always thought that Style Wars, a documentary film about the hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, first aired on PBS in 1983, was the first to deal with the graffiti scene in New York City. But, also like most people, I hadn’t heard about the movie Stations of the Elevated, released in 1981. Stations of the Elevated is a independent film produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Manfred (Manny) Kirchheimer. Presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1981, it’s set to the music of legendary New York-based experimental jazz musician Charles Mingus and the sounds of urbana (such as the shrill screech of the trains, horns blaring in traffic, police car sirens wailing, and the indistinguishable sound of crowds) lend itself to the authenticity of the work.

Elevated bombed train stopped still from Stations of the Elevated

This was perhaps one of the first cohesive attempts to document the phenomenon of graffitied trains in New York City and present it as a cultural phenomenon rather than an act of vandalism. Because there is no commentary, it tries to create a narrative about the urban environment using the elements of the urban visual landscape as brief respites from the monotony of everyday city life. Footage of painted trains rolling along the elevated lines are interspersed with shots of Technicolor billboards and stern brick facades inherent in the corporate landscape, as well as the decaying urban neighborhoods and ghettos that spawned the youngsters who partook in the movement. Stations of the Elevated attempts to give its viewers the experience of living and moving through New York City by relating sights and sounds that are common to its urban setting. The images, experiences, and juxtapositions that tend to stay with viewers at the end of the film are the same that those that would remain at the end of the day walking about town.

Heaven is Life train still from Stations of the Elevated

Earth is Hell train still from Stations of the Elevated

Because it was never widely released, Stations of the Elevated is incredibly difficult to get a hold of, especially in its entirety. Despite my extensive combing of the internet, I’ve only been able to download a 27 minute version of it, and if you do as well, I strongly advise that you DO NOT watch it because it’s a total hack job (as in, it features very abrupt cutaways) and a pain to get through because of it. Rather, watch it streaming in five parts starting here. Although I tend to abhor watching streaming movies, especially in parts, Stations of the Elevated is definitely one worth seeing, especially if you want to experience New York City in the early 1980s.

Crime train still from Stations of the Elevated

Style Wars was a documentary film co-produced and directed by Tony Silver, and co-produced by Henry Chalfant, who provided the background research as well as photo-documentation throughout the movie. It’s almost as if Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant wanted to expand on the idea of Stations of the Elevated. In actuality, Chalfant had been taking pictures for three years and had probably not known about its development. Rather than presenting assumptions and drawing conclusions about the spawning of a new expressive art out of urban decay, Silver and Chalfant worked to present graffiti as the controversial form of expression that it is, providing viewpoints from all sides, including then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Head of MTA Richard Ravitch, various MTA personnel, parents, random citizens, conventional artists, art collectors, as well as the graffiti writers and graffiti artists themselves.

Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch looking at graffiti proof still from Style Wars

Style Wars works to introduce its audience to the entire blossoming hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, not only graffiti. If graffiti was chosen means of written communication, then rap was a new means of verbal communication, and break dancing served as the new means of body language. Style Wars moves seamlessly between these the branches of the hip hop movement, and documents them as a new method of communication developed by the youth population to communicate with each other.

Convening at the writer's bench still from Style Wars

Much like Stations of the Elevated, Style Wars opens in a train yard under the cover of darkness (much like graffiti). Poetically, an elevated train passes under a lone street lamp, first at a distance, then closer, illuminating some indistinguishable markings on the side. However, instead of jazz, Style Wars opens the movie with a Wagner orchestral composition which had been made popular by the movie Excalibur, released only a few years before. This choice is a rather poignant one (that may not be appreciated as much by the film’s younger audience), as the composition was one that could be associated with glorified action and adventure. And admittedly, glory and adventure were the two objects of the graffiti game in the 1980s. Then, in the full light of day, tagged-up trains burst forth into the full and the music cuts to hip hop.

Streetlight spotlight on bombed train still from Style Wars

There is no doubt that Style Wars is a well-made film. It is both informative and appealing, both graphically and audibly. It is also exciting, following graffiti writers into underground tunnels and into train yards. The film follows and features interviews and works from graffiti writers and artists such as Iz the Wiz, Seen, Zephyr, Skeme, Mare, Case, Doze, Mean Dez, Duster, Dondi, Min, Case, among others, and perhaps most controversial, Cap (a toy tag bomber). Additionally, Style Wars comments on the importance of knowing the roots of graffiti writing (Taki 183) and predicts the future of the movement and its appeal to the art world. Not only does the film explain the incredibly diametrically opposed philosophies of the government and the graffiti artists and writers, but also the difference of opinions between those who consider themselves graffiti artist and those who write/bomb/tag. This dynamic documentary draws the viewer into the tensions that exist between the differing viewpoints exhibited in the films, creating a plot worthy of any feature length film.

Going into the tunnels still from Style Wars

Dondi painting a train in the yards still from Style Wars

Perhaps among the most poignant of questions the viewer might have once they’ve watched these two awesomely engrossing films is “why did it take so long for the next graffiti/street art documentary to be produced?” Over the next 20 years maybe only half a dozen mainstream feature-length films based loosely on graffiti writers or crews have been made, and it wasn’t until 2005 that appreciation for graffiti and the documentation of the movement was renewed in full force. In fact, in 2005, no less than six graffiti documentaries were released, including Infamy, NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting, Piece by Piece, Rash: Scratch it and it Spreads, Friendly Fire, and the Stolkholm Subway Stories.

Writers admiring handywork still from Style Wars

However, it is no coincidence that over a generation had to pass before the retrospective importance of the roots of the graffiti movement, now global, could be realized. Even after numerous government counter-measures attempted to stifle the creative expression of the first generation of graffiti writers out of Northeast America, the movement nevertheless spread throughout America and the rest of the world. Since the 2000s, a new generation of graffiti artists and street artists, inspired by the urban visual landscape of the 1980s (especially that of NYC), have taken up the mantle and are continuing the self-expressive tradition of graffiti in the urban setting, and the importance of the movement is being recognized by the main stream contemporary art world. In fact, Kirchheimer returned to broach the subject of New York City graffiti in his 2007 documentary Spraymasters, which featured Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Lady Pink, and Futura, who reflect on their own youthful adventures, their development, this new generation of writers and artists, as well as the world-wide interest in the graffiti and street art movement.

Seen just a kid growing up still from Style Wars

An interview with Stations of the Elevated’s Manny Kirchheimmer can be found here and an interview with Style Wars’ Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant can be found here as well as in the extra features of Style Wars. Check out my featured films page for more documentaries and films about graffiti and street art.

Police in bombed train still from Style Wars

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I’ve been riding the NYC subway lines for nearly a decade now and must admit that sometimes, when I’m waiting for a train, I look into the darkness of the tunnel and have an urge to jump down and follow the tracks towards the blue light and wherever they lead me. I actually thought that this must be a pretty common feeling, given the propensity of graffiti on the walls between stations, but when I revealed this desire to some friends a few weeks ago, they gave me a long, hard look and quite clearly told me that this feeling, was in fact, not normal. I think I need new friends. Well, don’t get me wrong, I love them, but sometimes I do wish that they were more adventurous. Especially when stories like that of the Underbelly Project breaks and it was revealed that yes, there are no shortage of people who are willing to hop down into the tracks and wander into the darkness in order to explore the bowels of the NYC underground and leave behind hidden treats for subsequent adventurous spirits.

And what a treat it was for street art followers on Halloween, when the most comprehensive street art exhibition ever put together was unveiled by a freelance journalist by the name of Jasper Rees in the New York Times and in the National (it was also in the Sunday Times London, but you need a subscription to read that article). Since then, the word on the lips of every street art junkie has been “Underbelly.” Except this exhibition was actually a trick: the art wasn’t on the street, and almost no one will ever be able see it. Aptly named “the Underbelly Project” because it’s part of the hidden underground of NYC, the Underbelly Project has taken graffiti and street art back to its non-commercial roots, echoing the prolific period of NYC subway art of the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn’t hard to figure out which abandoned station the Underbelly Project resides in (as I always say, with a bit of fingerwork, you can figure out anything with the help of the Internet). Since the exhibition was made public, urban spelunkers and subway lore fanatics have pinpointed the site to be that of the Broadway/South 4th Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The history of the station is also a fascinating one (read more here): back in 1929 and 1939, when NYC was working to build up its subway system, Broadway/South 4th Station was to be a major transfer and connection point for the IND Second System. However, work began before the city even knew if funding for the remainder of the line would ever materialize. When World War II and the subsequent onset of the automobile age put a grinding halt to subway expansion, the project was halted and the 6 track station remained incomplete. Therefore, the South 4th Street Station is not an abandoned subway station (as it had never been functional) so much as it is a forsaken dream. However, it was at this shell station that two NYC street artists, PAC and Workhorse, realized a different dream: to showcase the work of a collection of street artists (both graffiti artists and fine artists) together in a non-commercialized exhibition space.

For the past 18 months in a series of about 75 visits, Workhorse and PAC have been escorting a total of 103 artists into the station to leave their creative marks on the walls. The rules were simple: only one trip per artist, which meant that they had about four solid hours to paint and had to walk into the site with all the equipment that they would need to finish their work. What I personally find most fascinating about this project is the representative cross-section of street artists. An estimate by the organizers pegs about 10% of the artists as female (which seems fairly representative in my opinion). Additionally, there are a good mix of both established and new artists, and quite a few international artists as well. Most interestingly, graffiti artists and fine artists have works exhibited side by side without the disconnect and friction that is sometimes seen above ground. Works by graffiti artists such as Demer and Asylum are next to works by fine artists such as Swoon and Ron English.

The roster of artists drawn to the project by the organizers is very impressive (although we must remember that these are friends, or referrals, so please don’t think of this as a “Best of Street Art” list, but rather those who were both in the know and able/available to work in NYC). From various sources, we can identify the works of Boxi, Ethos, London Police, SheOne, Remi Rough, Stormie Mills, Damon Ginandes, Lucy MacLauchlan, Swoon, Logan Hicks, Aiko, Faile, Ron English, Flying Fortress, Imminent Disaster, Dan Witz, Elbow Toe, Ripo, Peru Ana Ana Peru, Michael De Feo, WK Interact, Roa, Specter, Demer, Momo, Posterchild, Saber, Trusto Corp, Sinboy, Cash4, Rone Nick Walker, Revok, Ceaze, Know Hope, L’Atlas, M-City, Mark Jenkins, Meggs, Kid Acne, Lister, Jeff Soto, Smith/Sane, Gaia, Noh J Coley, Jim Darling, Thundercut, Daryll Peirce, Surge, Spazmat, Ema, Joe Lurato, Guilerme, JMR, Asylum, Gould, Indigo, Jeff Stark, Bigfoot, Kid Zoom, Strafe, to name a few (no particular order).

When Rees asked Workhorse why he and PAC have spent over a year curating an exhibition that nearly no one will ever see, Workhorse recited their statement of purpose: “In the beginning, street art was something you did because you didn’t fit in anywhere else. But for the last few years urban art was getting ridiculous. You could go out with some cute little character that you drew, or some quirky saying, and put it up everywhere for a few months, then do a gallery show and cash in on the sudden interest in urban art. It really was that easy for a while. Banksy pieces that were selling for $600 one year were suddenly selling for $100,000 a few years later. It was commercialism at its worst. The Underbelly was our way of feeling like we were an island again. We finally had a space in the world that collectors couldn’t contaminate. A space that couldn’t be bought.”

While I understand that this is a completely valid train of thought, I disagree with its sentiment. Look, I understand the desire to be naughty and self-indulgent and to go against the establishment. But street art isn’t just the newest hot commodity that’s been appropriated by every Sharpie-welding, sticker-slapping, stencil-making egomanic who wants to make a buck: it’s a great mode of expression and still attracts and inspires a certain type of recklessness. And yes, while a part of me despises the commercialism of the art game, we’ve got to realize that all this attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, it’s legitimizing a form of art that should have been recognized as such decades ago. And I think that street art and graffiti deserves that kind of attention, and deserves to be recognized as an important urban cultural movement and genre in art history textbooks.

So in that sense, I completely agree with the lads at Graffoto (as in, don’t blame us for wanting to legitamize and expose your secret lifestyle). But I do respect and admire the fact that Underbelly has brought the risk back into art, and at least they’ve admitted that their interest was in creating art for the sheer sake of creating art, and that they just wanted to get a bunch of people together and do something a bit reckless that harkened back to the golden days of subway art. I’m glad they’ve gone to the press to let the world know about it, too. It might sound a little self-serving to the untrained ear, but the implications are much larger: art can exist everywhere, and artists are still having fun creating it. And with the shift of this type of art into the gallery-space, where trained curators will recontextualize it all and trained conservators will be concerned with its archival preservation, I think that this project was very important in that it it will serve to function as a last great guerrilla hurrah.

But of course, there are those of us who will still want to search out street art, or hidden architecture, or an urban adventure. To those of you who are tempted to search out this particular underground adventure, I would highly advise against it, as it’s both dangerous and illegal. Since news of the project broke, it has been revealed that much of the art has already been tagged up by a few disgruntled locals, and a few dozen people have been arrested in their attempt to climb down into the tracks in search of the artwork. The MTA, as is expected, don’t seem too pleased about the revelation of the Underbelly Project, and have taken a few measures of their own to prevent exploration, including stationing plainclothes cops on the platform. Though they have reiterated that such wanderings are deemed illegal as trespassing, they have simultaneously assured the public that they won’t be taking any measures to actively remove any artwork. (Though, as a conservator-in-training, I feel this point is moot and am forced to shake my head at PAC’s hopeful assessment that the pieces of the Underbelly Project will last three or four decades. In the end, it’s no more permanent than the art that many of these artists have created above ground.) Therefore, this unfinished station will retain these artworks as a poignant reminder that street art is ephemeral, and that no matter how hard we look, we’re bound to miss some of it.

Instead, keep your eyes and browser on the Underbelly Project website, which promises completion soon and will likely feature a comprehensive list of contributing artists, more photos, statements, and hopefully time-lapse video. Until then, the New York Times article has provided this video for your enjoyment. Also, please note that most photos in this post (except for the wide angle of the station, that was from the New York Times) were taken from Luna Park’s site. Definitely worth a visit, as she has managed to capture a significant portion of an unbelievable body of work.