Image via Dwell.
Deep beneath the streets, in NYC’s extensive network of subway tunnels, graffiti artists have been secretly honing their craft for nearly four decades. With cans of spray paint and a willingness to traverse some of the most daunting subterranean landscapes, these artists have created a body of work that has remained largely untouched (and unseen) by the outside world. The upcoming book Beneath the Streets: The Hidden Relics of New York’s Subway System gives readers a rare glimpse of works seen only by their daring artists and transit workers. We had a chance to get the scoop from authors Matt Litwack and Jurne on their exciting new project.
Image via Dwell.
By offering readers a glimpse of seldom-seen catacombs deep in the NYC subway system, Beneath the Streets helps document a history of graffiti art that has been largely preserved beneath the streets. The book features many works that date back to the 1970’s and early 1980’s, an era of graffiti that Jurne told us came to influence the entire world. “In that way, our book serves as a historical document that preserves the last remaining work from this era, which has all but been eradicated with the New York City MTA’s policy on graffiti in the transit system,” he said.
A graffiti artist stands on a plank of wood above the third rail. Image via Dwell.
While Jurne pointed to graffiti’s ephemeral nature, a related–and perhaps not so paradoxical–theme of the book is what Litwack called the “timelessness of the [underground] environment.” He added that since the tunnels date back to 1904, “if the wall doesn’t have any graffiti on it, it feels the same it probably felt decades ago down there.” The book’s inclusion of photographs from the subway’s century-old history, Lutwick explained, is a way to “tie it all together.” The photographs are also accompanied by quotes from graffiti artists both past and present to create a more all-encompassing story of graffiti artists’ relationship with the subway tunnels.
Don’t confuse the art that’s represented in this book with that of the more widely acknowledged street art movement though, because according to both authors, the two have nothing in common. “Street art has safely ridden the coattails of graffiti into the mainstream,” Jurne said. Graffiti art, he explained, is letter-based and traditionally illegal, while street art is most often representational and more easily digested by mainstream audiences.
Image via Dwell.
While the two friends began photographing the tunnels five years ago, the idea for Beneath the Streets came from an earlier fascination with hidden and seemingly untraversed infrastructures. Litwack, a former Anthropology major from Purchase College who now runs his own studio, has been a graffiti artist for nearly 15 years and recalls cutting class in high school to ride the subway lines. Similarly, Oregon-born Jurne got his start in the “slanguage arts” watching the spinning wheels of freight trains throughout the Northeast. With both photographs and interviews, the results of their joint project are as representative of their graffiti credentials as they are of Litwack’s background in anthropology.
The inclusion of the tunnels’ history and artist anecdotes also sheds some light on what the authors consider the origins of urban exploration. Jurne explains that graffiti artists are the true pioneers of urban exploration who predate the term. But as tempting as all of it may seem, the authors do not promote urban exploration of this kind under any circumstance. They both stress the extreme danger of exploring these underground environments–a “dark, secluded, and unforgiving” one, as Jurne puts it. Luckily, Beneath the Streets offers a chance to traverse the unforgiving world of underground graffiti from the safety of home. Be sure to check out the book when it hits shelves on July 11 or by pre-ordering it from Amazon.
Find out more by contacting the author @DouglasCapraro.