Subway graffiti rises as world visits NYC for ‘risky play’ – NBC New York


This article has been originally published May 5 at 6:48 p.m. EDT by THE CITY

On April 18, French graffiti artist Julien Blanc posted photos on Instagram of his signature “JiBEONE” tag on a Manhattan rooftop where he was, he wrote, “waiting for the sunrise.”

Days later, Blanc and his graffiti partner Pierre Audebert were both struck and killed by a train at an elevated station along the No. 3 line in Brooklyn, in what sources described as a pursuit of a prized canvas sought after by spray paint Picassos the world over. .

The Sutter Avenue station in Brooklyn where the bodies of two French artists were found in April. May 5, 2022. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The deaths of Blanc, 34, and Audebert, 28, highlight the enduring — and growing — appeal of branding New York trains decades after the heyday of graffiti in the public transit system. The MTA has documented a recent increase in the number of tagged subway cars, nearly doubling so far this year compared to the same time in 2019.

“For the new generation interested in the subway, it’s always a draw,” said Eric Felisbret, a graffiti historian who painted trains as “DEAL CIA” in the late 1970s. and the early 80s. “This is Mecca, where they kind of want to put that feather in their cap that they painted on a train in the cradle of subway graffiti.”

The 209 graffiti increases from January 1 to early May represent a 95% increase since the start of 2019, when there were 107, according to MTA statistics provided to THE CITY show.

The spike comes after the number of tags per year fell from 443 in 2018 to 297 a year later, a 33% drop.

But after that number fell to 208 in 2020, according to the MTA, subway graffiti increased in 2021 and is on track to surpass last year’s 300 total reports – 89% occurring in tunnels and tracks out of- service trains are stored.

The rise of underground art is evident on the MTA’s website, where the agency publishes weekly updates on “incidents of vandalism” in the transit system.

For the week beginning March 28, the MTA tallied 73 occurrences of subway graffiti, followed by 68 the following week — by far, the highest weekly totals since the MTA began reporting numbers in August 2020. There were 59 for the week beginning April 25. , a few days after the two deaths.

Among the centerpieces of graffiti last month was a B-train subway car emblazoned “Let’s Go Yankees” in Bomber colors and stripes.

“The MTA views acts of vandalism as unacceptable,” agency spokesman Sean Butler told THE CITY. “These acts are costly to the MTA and taxpayers, and often extremely dangerous.”

“It’s a pilgrimage”

An NYPD spokesperson said trains stored in so-called disarmament zones are primarily targeted “by people living overseas.”

“As restrictions on international travel have been lifted, we have seen an increase in graffiti incidents,” spokeswoman Lt. Jessica McRorie said.

The area near the Sutter Avenue-Rutland Road elevated station in Brownsville where the bodies of Blanc and Audbert were found early April 20 is near an underground drop-off area, LA transit workers said. CITY, and veteran graffiti artists said it has long attracted people who want to leave their mark on the subway.

“They go to well-known places in the 70s and 80s,” said Louie Gasparro, an actor and artist whose graffiti was KR.ONE. “This folklore has reached the community in Europe, so for European writers it’s a pilgrimage.”

A Manhattan-bound 3 train enters a tunnel just before Utica Avenue station in Brooklyn on May 5, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Fred Vilomar, who tagged the trains as “REE” from 1973 to 1977, said the Brownsville neighborhood had been “well known” in street art circles for decades.

“It was a hotspot when I was a teenager, but to get into this place you have to have timing and luck, you know?” he said. “It’s a risky game to play and I’m sorry their lives were lost.”

Vilomar, who is in his 60s and remains active as a street artist, said he quit spray painting on the subway after a friend was fatally hit by a train in the 1970s.

“I saw what it did to my friends and also to children coming from abroad,” he said. “For them it’s like the holy grail to come to New York and paint a subway car – they take that glory with them and have that notch on their belt, but they have to understand that it’s not that glorious. that it seems.”

The short-lived sizzle caused by social media photos and videos of spray-painted trains, which the MTA quickly removed from passenger service, contributed to the resurgence of graffiti on the subway, according to veterans of the scene.

“The MTA’s line of thinking was that if you remove the train from service instantly, you never let anyone see it and you immediately remove the motivation,” said Felisbret, the author of “Graffiti New York” and founder of, which chronicles the history of subway graffiti. “But with the advent of social media, they don’t really have that as a fighting tactic anymore.”

The cost of painting

The MTA said it plans to spend more than $1 million in 2022 on graffiti-related costs, as it did the previous two years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent targeting graffiti from 1972 to 1989, when the MTA took what it said was the last graffiti-covered train out of service to be cleaned up.

“It’s expensive to clean up,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee. “And that’s causing delays and is a symptom of the larger issues we’re facing as a society and as a system.”

The subway system has seen a nearly 20% increase since 2019 in the number of people on the tracks, most of whom are there voluntarily, according to the MTA, which is studying ways to reduce intrusions into train paths.

The agency could not say how many of the track trespassing cases involved graffiti.

Ceet Fouad, a Franco-Algerian artist, told Gothamist last month that he was unaware that Blanc and Audebert planned to spray paint on the metro trains when he dined with them the day before. their discovery on the tracks.

“If I knew, I would tell them not to do it,” he said.

Felisbret, the veteran graffiti artist, told THE CITY this week he was “truly horrified” by the two deaths, but said he does not expect a long-term deterrent effect on the number of artists strangers who want to spray paint on the subway.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see tributes to them on trains soon, paintings that are posted on Instagram,” he said. “I think it will only slow things down briefly.”

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