Whirls and Twirls by Sol LeWitt in the 59th Street Columbus Circle Station

The network of artistic communities coursing through the five boroughs is wide and vast. Armory Arts Week, in celebration of these groups, is throwing open the doors in locations from the Bronx to Brooklyn starting today and going through Sunday, March 9th. We know, we know, it’s cold outside and you don’t really want to go far from home or spend time walking around in that thin jacket. Well, instead of going to see the art, Untapped will bring it to you, deep underground, on your next subway ride home. 

Ming Fay’s Shad Crossing at Delancey Street on the J/Z lines

Have you ever sprinted out of a station wondering who did the tile artwork on the walls? Or paused, in that brief moment when the train doors were opened, to notice the glow of a stained glass window under the station name? Along with Armory Arts Week the MTA Arts for Transit group has posted videos and podcasts detailing the rich stories behind the artwork at dozens of stations running from South Ferry to 167th Street.

Bing Lee’s mosaic tiled wall in the Canal Street Station on the J/Z lines

One of the many available podcasts for download is one for the Canal Street station. Chinese artist Bing Lee created a narrative, out of bands of mosaic and blue and white iconographic tiles, about a merchant ship called the Empress China, the first U.S. boat to trade with China. It left New York harbor in 1794, on Washington’s Birthday, and arrived back in New York harbor fourteen months later filled with unfamiliar and exotic goods.

First, the name–Canal Street–named for a waterway drained long ago. Lee designed the station sign to be taken in multiple ways. As trains come to a stop, doors chiming open, passengers are given a choice of reading “Canal Street” in English or the Chinese characters for “Chinatown.”

“I want to give the viewers art that reminds them of history, but also speaks directly to them,” said Lee, “something meaningful but also playful.” Also, viewed from the platforms, are interlocking teapots that incorporate the Chinese symbol for “good life.” And on the station’s upper level, there are variations on the symbols for “Asia,” “quality,” and “cycle.” With all this art to decode, a few pointers are welcome.

Walls and walls of urban art are awaiting your discovery. Next time you’re transferring from the J to the N, or the L to the M, make sure you make time to dawdle beside the tiles. The podcasts and videos are available on the MTA website and if you’re an urban art junky like we are, you can follow the Arts for Transit groups Tumblr.

Check out our Top 10 Subway Art Installations in NYC.