Citywide: Remembering and Defending Subway Graffiti
November 16, 2004
By DAVID GONZALEZ
A wall in Lee Quinones's studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
is covered with words, hundreds of them, done in thick,
angular strokes that dance. The style is familiar, which is
no surprise. What's odd is that his name doesn't dominate
the wall, since Mr. Quinones first became famous for
writing LEE in huge, solid letters on subway trains.
"We're All Waitin' on a Moment" reads one of the many
phrases written in black marker on his studio wall. Mr.
Quinones has had plenty of moments: he was among the
generation of 1970's graffiti writers who went from
spraying their names on trains to painting entire subway
cars with intricately colored pieces. He was also in the
vanguard of those who traded trains for canvas and went
from eluding the police inside subway yards to courting
serious collectors at galleries here and in Europe.
Despite his ascension to cult figure, some moments will
never come, not if the Metropolitan Transit Authority can
help it. This year, as the city celebrates the subway's
centennial, graffiti has not only been erased from cars, it
has also been buffed from the official record. The few
mentions of it now are obligatory - and brief - references
to it as a plague that epitomized a chaotic and decrepit
Mr. Quinones understands the discomfort. He has confronted
it ever since he was a teenager who used to watch
commuters' faces as they saw his painted cars rumble into
stations carrying messages that ranged from playful to
"You felt people were kind of intimidated," said Mr.
Quinones, 44. "They were adults watching something created
by youths while everybody was asleep. There was an agenda
here for us, not wanton vandalism. But the M.T.A. has not
wanted to admit that, because our work was becoming more
political and less individual."
Two galleries have mounted exhibitions to commemorate the
era. Marcoart, on the Lower East Side, is displaying 100
subway maps tagged by various graffiti writers. And more
than 100 artists have painted whole train cars - albeit
tiny model trains - for a show at the Showroom NYC, in the
"We have our own history, and I want transit historians to
realize they're missing something," said Raul Cordero, 45,
also known as Duro, whose work occupies a place of honor in
the show. "Whenever the train rolled, part of me rolled
Many riders, who endured daily visual assaults of
paint-slathered windows and sometimes offensive writings,
are hardly nostalgic for the era. Similarly, transit
officials - who declared the system graffiti- free in May
1989 - have a less-romantic assessment.
"Irrespective of the art argument, that was a time when the
system looked like nobody was in charge," said Paul
Fleuranges, a transit authority spokesman. "It was
vandalism. If it was art, they wouldn't have had to scale
fences, dodge dogs and cops. "
Yet the work of the top graffiti writers of the 1970's and
early 1980's, which by some estimates includes several
dozen at most, documents a crucial component of early
hip-hop culture. That culture - where teenagers without
bands made music by mixing song snippets and artists
without studios painted entire subway lines - has since
become a worldwide (and multibillion-dollar) phenomenon.
Its influence is such that some techniques originated by
graffiti writers are now commonplace. Ivor L. Miller,
author of "Aerosol Kingdom" (University Press of
Mississippi, 2002), noted how the sides of buses in some
cities are covered with a single advertisement. Even in New
York, celebratory signs for the Mets and Yankees have
"It has been co-opted by corporations to sell products," he
said. "Those advertisements subvert the very logic of the
system. When you see whole cars covered with an ad, that's
O.K. because it's paid for. It's not done by kids from the
He added that money - or the lack of it - might explain why
officials refuse to admit that some of the subway painters
actually had talent. Rather than buy space, they were
visual squatters. "It is class warfare," he said. "These
are self-taught kids who did not go to school to do what
Christopher Ellis, who is better known as Daze, first
learned about graffiti from the sketchbooks toted by his
classmates at the High School of Art and Design. The real
challenge came when he moved up to trains. He said he saw
the subway car paintings as a way of adding a defiant touch
of life to the South Bronx when entire blocks had been
"There was something positive coming out of these desolate
environments," he insisted the other day, before going to
Brazil for an exhibition of his work. "That was when the
Bronx was burning, yet there were these trains with color."
Mr. Ellis, 42, and John Matos, 43, have shared a studio
near 149th Street and Third Avenue in the Bronx for 20
years now. They could probably afford to move, but they say
their location ensures that only serious collectors come
their way to spend as much as $25,000 on a canvas. They are
in the enviable position of turning down work.
Though Mr. Ellis has come a long way from the subway, the
system still fascinates him, at least as subject matter for
a recent series of paintings of stations. The series
revisits some of the places he used to go to paint trains
in Queens and the Bronx. In one painting of the Zerega
Avenue station on the No. 6 line, a lone police officer
stands on a platform with spotless walls.
"Graffiti used to make the subway ride more interesting for
me, even if I was looking at something other than my work,"
he said. "Now, like anyone else, I'm more concerned with
getting to where I am going as fast as I can."
Yet their years on the trains have affected their artistic
vision. Some of them talk about not being afraid to use
bold colors. Others say they can paint in tight spaces.
Many said speed was still a hallmark of their technique.
Mr. Matos, who earlier this year had a show in Paris, said
the much-dreaded buff - the machine that sort of scrubbed
the paint off subway cars - actually did many of them a
"I thank the M.T.A. for buffing the trains," Mr. Matos,
known as Crash, said. "There is nothing left but the
history, and this history is what propelled us. How could I
hold it against the M.T.A.? What we were doing was illegal.
We weren't supposed to be there. What we had, we took."
Few have taken it as far as Mr. Quinones. His studio is a
soft-lit space tucked into an industrial landscape of
towering cranes and mammoth sheds. Inside, books and
paintings reflect his interests - trains and cars,
buildings and machines. The studio is like his dream
clubhouse, since he grew up in the projects on the other
side of the East River. Moses-like, he holds up two panels
from subway cars featuring vintage graffiti.
"To me, the waterfront and its machines were always an
integral part of what made New York function," he said. "I
was always interested in the shape of things, how they
functioned, how their charisma was built up by the air
Few things, he said, had the aura of a subway car.
love the way they rocked," he said. "They had a ghetto
strut to them. It was aggressive."
So was his graffiti, sometimes touching upon crime or the
possibility of nuclear doom. His more recent paintings
still have attitude. One of them is a 9/11-themed vista of
Lower Manhattan's rooftops showing military helicopters
creeping into ground zero. Another is of people covering
their ears and hunching up their shoulders as they watch
A Parisian collector once told him his work was unnerving.
It was a compliment. A quarter-century ago, some New York
commuters said the same thing for very different reasons.
Mr. Quinones said maybe they'll change their minds in the
next 25 years.
"If people are going to live in the dark, I'll leave the
light on for them," he said. "The art will explain it all."