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“Beneath the Streets”: Graffiti artists explore the art of New York City’s subway tunnels in new book

Going underground has a special significance for urban artists Matt Litwack and JURNE, who recently published “Beneath The Streets: the Hidden Relics of New York’s Subway System” with Gingko Press. Through their original photography and map archives collected over a decade, their book tells the story of an unseen world : the unauthorized exploration of New York City’s subway tunnels. 

Because the underground subway system has mostly remained untouched since it was built, which predates the emergence of graffiti art in New York, these tunnels have become the mecca of some of the world’s most hardcore graffiti artists and urban explorers. Underneath the city sidewalk, lies beneath the streets the largest art “museum” in the world,  displaying the most extensive historic and original graffiti art collection there is.

The book extends far beyond documentation. It is assembled as a hybrid form of narrative-photo-documentation taking you on a journey to their “great escape”, entering the underground, stumbling upon pieces of city history, avoiding trains and no-clearance tracks, with interviews and anecdotes as each photo immerses you further into a real experience of beauty and danger.

To learn more about their experience from going in the tunnels for years and how they created this book,  Street Art Anarchy had the privilege of interviewing the authors of Beneath The Streets, Matt Litwack and JURNE:

Street Art Anarchy: Why do Graffiti artists go in the tunnels? What attracts them to paint there?

Matt Litwack: Graffiti artists have been going in subway tunnels since the dawn of graffiti writing in New York City over 40 years ago.  Initially this was done to paint actual trains kept in tunnels overnight.  As time progressed, graffiti artists began systematically painting the walls in the tunnels as another method of bombing.  I think people are attracted to these environments because of the sheer danger and exclusiveness of the underground.  Its one thing to paint a piece on a wall or rooftop, it is another to venture underground and have to compete with live third rails, speeding trains and the utter filth and chaos of the transit system in order to get your name up.  Being underground really is a surreal experience that is hard to fully capture with words.  The solitude, and utter danger meshed with the tranquility and silence of the tunnels makes for a one of a kind experience, especially in a city like New York where noise, and human activity is the norm.

JURNE: Writers are drawn to tunnels because of their secludedness. The tunnel environment is totally unique. It’s one of the few places in a city where you can hear and listen to the people and machinery of the environment, yet you’re completely isolated. You are literally right beneath everyone.

Photo: Courtesy of JURNE

SAA: How many times have you been in there?

ML: I personally have been in the tunnels too many times to count.  I think it would be fair to say that I have ventured underground close to 200 times in my life.

J: Many more than I can count.

SAA: What are the risks of going in there?

J: I think the biggest and the most obvious risk is safety. The tunnel environment is extremely dangerous, and totally unforgiving. Beyond safety, it is illegal. 

ML: Well one of the obvious risks is death.  Subway trains weigh over 40 tons and can travel at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.  It is an extremely dangerous place and one bad decision can end your life in a heartbeat.  If you do not know what you are doing, or are not with someone who does, it can be very easy to get yourself into a situation where you will become trapped and die underground.  In addition to this, going underground into tunnels is also illegal, so you have to be alert and aware of that as well when exploring the transit system.  I do not know if it is the most extreme form of urban exploration, but I would say it is certainly up there. 

Photo: Courtesy of JURNE

SAA: What motivated you to put this book together?

J: The book is the first of its kind: it catalogs both the graffiti within the New York City subway tile network, and the environment of the tunnels. Being that it’s a novel contribution to graffiti culture and history, both Matt and I felt a responsibility to document, interview and then compile and layout material for the project in a way that does justice to both the history of the NYC tunnel graffiti writing and the subway tunnel infrastructure.

ML: The motivation for me dates back to my formative years as a graffiti writer growing up in Brooklyn.  As much as graffiti throughout the city influenced me greatly, it was the graffiti in the tunnels that had an almost magical element to it.  With a great appreciation for the history of the subway, as well as having a background in anthropology it seemed like a perfect fit to create a work on the tunnels that helped break down graffiti writer’s experiences underground through a sociological perspective while still paying homage to the history and architectural design of the underbelly of New York.
As we set out to make the book we did not fully know where it would take us.  We did have a long list of locations we wished to document.  JURNE had the role of capturing more of the atmospheric shots, and I took on the task of photographing the graffiti underground.  It was a real team effort.  I should also note that along with Anthony Arias, who did the layout for the book and everyone at Gingko Press we were able to put together a product that is hopefully as visually pleasing as well as it is educational.  

SAA: How did you pick the photos to be included?

ML: Picking the right photos to include was a very lengthy process.  As we began to amass a great deal of photography, JURNE and I started to see that an actual story of one entering and eventually leaving the tunnels could be told.  Once we felt that we were in a good place with the amount of photos we had, we began to categorize them in context to the story of the underground.  We literally printed everything out and laid the pages out on the floor of JURNE’s studio, and moved the pages around like a jigsaw puzzle until we felt that the book had a legit feel and flow to it.  We tried to include as much relevant graffiti as possible, while blending the atmospheric shots to give the reader a true sense of what it is like to explore these locations. 

Photo: Courtesy of JURNE

SAA: How long did it take to put together all the photos?

J: The project took about four years to do if you were in total all of the time together,  but we were not able to work on the project in a consecutive fashion. Compiling a book and doing the layout with our friend Anthony Arias, it was an arduous task. We spent a long time cataloging the photographs we had and then selecting the best ones that fit within different categories that we felt we needed to cover in the book.  We had 5 to 6 different categories that we fit photographs and material into. We worked on this project during the last decade. We had a lot of material to work with when we began the process of laying the book out, and we used about 20% of our material in the final book.

SAA: What is the most challenging aspects of the tunnels for a photographer? and for a graffiti artist? Is there still graffiti being done in the tunnels?

ML: I would say the most challenging factors underground would be competing with the trains.  Luckily through years of recognizance work, I kind of knew many places we could set up equipment without having to directly deal with being in the path of the train.  In addition to this, the unexpected element of track maintenance being done by workers in the middle of the night can easily ruin your plans of going underground.  I would say these same issues hold true for graffiti artists looking to go in the tunnels and write graffiti.  There is still graffiti being written underground, although perhaps not with the same vigor and systematic approach that you saw during the 90s and early part of the millennium.

J: One of the most challenging aspects of documenting the subway tunnel environment was shooting in focus. I had to come up with ways to take well-exposed and focused shots in a very timely manner. Obviously, we couldn’t spend hours and hours down there trying to take perfect photo. Because it is so dark in the tunnels, it is a real challenge to figure out how to take quality photos expediently; without taking shot after shot until you get the right one. So learning how to do that, and what kind of shots looked right and captured the environment in it’s truest form was a challenge. It’s hard to really capture how it feels to be down, deep inside one of these tunnels
For a graffiti artist, similar challenges exist: how to do what you do quickly, and have it look right. Coming from that background, the challenge of shooting this environment had it’s new nuances, but I was accustomed to the feeling of ‘time’ being the biggest factor in the outcome of the quality of the resulting work, from my history as a writer.

Photo: Courtesy of JURNE

SAA: What is the relationship between Graffiti and NYC Tunnels? How has it evolved? Where do you see it going?

ML: Well at first graffiti in tunnels was merely done by writers painting trains in layups where train cars were held overnight.  They would tags the walls to test out their paint, or to let other writers know that was where they painted trains.  As years passed and graffiti was removed from trains, writers began painting underground, and hitting spots that one could see from a passing train.  Many writers, most notably the writer REVS who painted his autobiography in the tunnels began to paint all out pieces with bucket paint and rollers.  Graffiti in the tunnels is very much dictated by the environment itself, and often times a writer must sacrifice a certain aesthetic quality of a piece in order to paint on the filthy, steel dust covered walls of the transit system.

J: Graffiti art has been synonymous with New York City subway tunnels since the birth of modern graffiti, or shortly thereafter. Writers were hip to the fact that trains were laid up in tiles and this was an ideal environment to paint graffiti on them in. Graffiti writers have been lurking around in and painting in the New York City subway tunnels for over 40 years.
It’s more and more difficult to gain access to these kind of places because of our society’s increasing fixation on security and monitoring public spaces. I don’t see that trend going away.


Risk9 on the L line

Photo: Courtesy of RISK9


SAA: Do you think the tunnels helped write graffiti history or did graffiti help write the tunnels’ history?

ML: That is an interesting question.  I think the tunnels helped to write the history of graffiti in NYC.  For the most part, graffiti underground is preserved and has acted as a time capsule.  If one knows where to look they can find relics that are over 40 years old.  As the city continues to become more and more gentrified, I think it is great that these treasures from the graffiti of yesteryear are hidden inside the tunnels.    

J: I think that it’s both. Underground layups, subterranean places where trains are stored,  played a key role in the history of New York City graffiti. If I had to guess I’d say thousands of graffiti pieces have been painted on New York  city subway trains while they were inside of the tunnels. Likewise graffiti is a very interesting and important aspect of the history of the New York City and it’s transit system, including the subway tunnels. Graffiti has become a global phenomenon, all of which emanated out of New York City. The fact that this all began on moving canvases carrying thousands and thousands of New York City residents is incredible. The remote environment of the New York City subway tunnels, and the fact that trains are stored inside of them played a key role in the development of this phenomenon.


“Beneath The Streets” Official Links:
Get the book Here
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