Train & Subway Chronicles in Street Art's Evolution Trackside Rebels

Train & Subway Chronicles in Street Art's Evolution Trackside Rebels

, by Bobby Banks, 11 min reading time

Trains and subways have been the arteries of urban centers for over a century, conveying not just commuters but also cultural trends and artistic movements. In the realm of street pop art and graffiti, these metal carriages serve as both canvas and messenger, carrying the visual language of resistance, identity, and community through the cityscape.

Subway Graffiti: The Beginnings of Urban Art

The story of subway graffiti begins in the heart of New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a time characterized by social upheavals and a burgeoning need for self-expression among the city's youth. The subway system, sprawling and interconnected, presented a perfect, high-visibility canvas. Pioneering artists such as TAKI 183, a Greek-American foot messenger from Washington Heights, became known for tagging his moniker across the city, including on subway cars. His actions set the stage for what would become a worldwide phenomenon.

The Artistic Evolution of Train Tagging

What started as simple tags and monikers soon evolved into elaborate pieces of artwork. As the 1970s progressed, artists like Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy began to view entire subway cars as their canvases, creating elaborate and colorful murals. These artists were not content with mere recognition; they sought to convey messages about their lives and their communities, turning the subways into roving art galleries.

Subway Graffiti Pioneers of the 1970s

In the 1970s, subway graffiti in New York City transitioned from simple acts of vandalism to a bona fide art movement. The subway cars of the 1970s became the canvases for disenfranchised youth to express their creativity, frustrations, and aspirations. This decade witnessed the rise of some of the most influential figures in street art history, artists who laid the groundwork for the graffiti and street art culture that we know today.

TAKI 183 Ignites the Tagging Phenomenon

Arguably the most famous of the early graffiti artists was TAKI 183, a Greek-American teenager from Washington Heights. TAKI, short for Demetrius, combined his street number with his first name and began tagging his moniker across New York, attracting media attention. His widespread tags turned him into a legend and inspired a generation of youth to take up markers and spray cans, igniting the tagging phenomenon across the city.

Lady Pink and the Feminine Touch in Graffiti

Another prominent figure of the era was Lady Pink, born Sandra Fabara, who emerged as one of the first females to break into the male-dominated graffiti scene. Her work often depicted large, colorful, and elaborate pieces on subway cars, earning her the title "the first lady of graffiti." She was not only significant for her art but also for opening doors for a multitude of female artists in the street art scene.

Lee Quiñones and the Fabulous Five

Lee Quiñones, a member of the influential graffiti crew The Fabulous Five, was known for his elaborate subway car murals. His style was characterized by narrative scenes, social commentary, and the use of cartoons and media characters, which helped elevate subway graffiti into a form of urban storytelling and public engagement.

The Artistic Language of Blade

Blade, another iconic figure, known as the "King of Graffiti," painted over 5,000 trains with his vibrant and dynamic pieces. His style evolved rapidly, and he was known for his whole-train masterpieces that captured the essence of the era and cemented his place in the annals of graffiti history.

SEEN Ushering in a New Wave of Subway Art

Richard "SEEN" Mirando, often referred to as the "Godfather of Graffiti," started painting New York City's subway system in the early 1970s. His pieces were known for their bold lettering and cartoon characters, particularly from the Looney Tunes and Marvel Comics, which brought a sense of playfulness and mainstream appeal to the graffiti movement. The 1970s set the stage for the explosive growth of graffiti art in the following decade, with these and many other artists pushing the boundaries of what was possible with a spray can on the side of a subway car. The art form was in its infancy, but the colorful, bold, and often provocative pieces that adorned the subways of New York would serve as a foundation for a global street art movement that continues to evolve to this day.

Subway Artistry in the 1980s: A Decade of Underground Brilliance

The 1980s marked a significant epoch in the timeline of subway graffiti, distinguished by the emergence of several key figures whose work would come to define the essence of street and subway art. In New York City, the graffiti scene was more than just an act of rebellion; it was a cultural uprising that transformed the subway system into a mobile gallery where the most pressing narratives of the time were on display. During this era, the underground art scene was a confluence of various art forms, including hip hop culture, which helped to propel graffiti into the limelight. Graffiti artists of the 1980s saw the subway as a platform for social commentary, a space where art could be democratized and made available to all, rather than being confined to the elitist walls of galleries and museums. One cannot discuss the 1980s subway art scene without mentioning Keith Haring, whose white-chalk drawings on the black matte advertisement backings of subway stations became a trademark. Haring's iconic 'radiant baby' symbol became synonymous with the energy and spirit of the time. His art was immediate and accessible, engaging with a wide audience on subjects ranging from AIDS awareness to the celebration of life and love.

Another pivotal artist of the time was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who initially tagged under the name SAMO. Basquiat's work transcended subway walls and his poetic and poignant epigrams challenged the status quo, speaking to the struggles of the street and the superficiality of the art world. Then there was the collective energy of graffiti crews, such as the Fabulous 5, led by Lee Quiñones, which produced full-car murals that were intricate and often politically charged. These works were elaborate, requiring planning, execution, and a look-out for the transit police, but their ephemeral nature was part of their charm. Artists like Dondi, Zephyr, and Futura 2000 also made their mark during this period. Dondi's "Children of the Grave" series, Zephyr's stylistic innovations in lettering, and Futura's abstract approach to subway art showcased the evolving aesthetics of graffiti, moving it beyond simple tags to complex compositions that bore the individual artist's signature style. The 1980s were also a time of increased scrutiny and crackdown on subway graffiti. As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) waged a war on subway graffiti, the movement was forced to adapt, with some artists moving to galleries and the emerging street art scenes abroad. Despite the pushback from authorities, the work of these artists during the 1980s left an indelible mark on the cultural memory of the city. Their legacy lives on, not just in the stories of those who lived through the era, but also in the DNA of contemporary street art that continues to draw inspiration from the rawness and authenticity of 1980s subway graffiti.

Keith Haring and the Democratization of Subway Art

The 1980s saw the rise of Keith Haring, who brought a different approach to subway art. Haring's simple, bold lines and animated figures didn't just decorate the subway; they engaged with its riders. His subway drawings, created with white chalk on the black paper of unused advertising spaces, were not only accessible but also ephemeral, often lasting only until the ads were replaced.

The Influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat began his artistic journey under the pseudonym SAMO, spray-painting enigmatic phrases and symbolic imagery across New York's urban landscape, including subway stations. Basquiat's work was emblematic of the raw energy of street art and its potential to transition from subterranean passages to the upper echelons of the art world.

Modern Contemporary Voices in Subway Graffiti Art

The landscape of subway graffiti art has seen profound changes with the advent of modern street artists. These individuals have taken the foundational elements laid down by their predecessors and infused them with new energy, techniques, and messages, reflecting the times they live in. Their work often embodies a blend of grassroots activism, personal expression, and community engagement, resonating with a diverse global audience.

Shepard Fairey and the Power of Graphic Art

Shepard Fairey, an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, and founder of OBEY Clothing, became known beyond his initial work of the "André the Giant Has a Posse" sticker campaign. His work in the subway system includes the iconic "Hope" poster for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Fairey's approach to subway art involves a mixture of stenciling, stickers, and posters, distinguishing his work with a profound graphic quality and socio-political commentary.

Banksy and the Globalization of Subway Art

No examination of street art is complete without acknowledging Banksy, the elusive British artist whose stencil-based work often features pointed social commentary. Banksy's art extends to trains and subways worldwide, where his temporary, yet impactful, pieces continue to provoke public thought and discourse. Banksy, the pseudonymous England-based street artist, has also made significant contributions to subway graffiti art. Known for his satirical street art and subversive epigrams, Banksy's work has appeared in subways and trains across various cities, offering sharp critiques of social and political issues. His art pieces are ephemeral, often removed or sold, but the impact of his messages continues to influence and provoke thought among transit riders and the public alike.

C215: The Stencil Storyteller

Christian Guémy, known by his street moniker C215, is a French street artist hailing from Paris who has been described as "France's answer to Banksy." C215 primarily uses stencils to create his street art, and his intricate and colorful works often feature close-up portraits of people, including his daughter, the homeless, refugees, and others on the periphery of society. His work can be found on mailboxes, street corners, and the walls of subway stations around the world.

Invader and the Pixelated Invasion

The work of the French urban artist Invader stands out for its distinctive use of square ceramic tiles to create mosaic images reminiscent of pixelated video game characters. These have appeared not only on the walls of city streets but also within the subway systems, engaging commuters with a nostalgic yet innovative art form that captures the playful spirit of street art.

Os Gêmeos and the Cultural Tapestry

Twin brothers from Brazil, known as Os Gêmeos, have brought their vibrant and whimsical style to the subway graffiti art scene. Their signature yellow characters and elaborate scenes tell stories that are deeply rooted in Brazilian culture yet universally relatable. Their work on trains and subways across various countries showcases the universal language of art and its ability to transcend cultural barriers. These modern masters of subway graffiti art continue to push the envelope, challenging the status quo and inspiring new generations of artists. Their diverse approaches and backgrounds contribute to the rich tapestry of the subway art scene, proving that this form of expression is as vital and relevant as ever.

Subway Art in Modern Metropolises

Today, subway and train art has spread to cities across the globe. Artists like Shepard Fairey, Os Gêmeos, and C215 have left their marks on trains and transit systems, showcasing a diverse array of styles and influences. This global spread underscores the universal language of street art and its power to transform mundane commutes into immersive artistic experiences. This introduction encapsulates the rich history and cultural significance of train and subway art within the urban art movement. It touches on the origins of the graffiti movement, highlights key artists and their contributions, and nods to the enduring influence of this art form. The full article would continue to explore these themes, delving deeper into each topic and examining the current state and future of train and subway art in pop culture, street art, and graffiti art.

Train & Subway Chronicles in Street Art's Evolution Trackside Rebels 

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