The abandoned stations of New York City’s subway system have a persistent pull for urban explorers. These stations are attractive for their mystery and isolation, but they also contain much more than damp tunnels or crumbling infrastructure. In fact, some even contain art. Urban explorer @vic.invades, who shared these photographs with Untapped Cities, recently braved the danger and darkness of the abandoned portions of New York City’s subway system to reveal an art exhibit in New York City that will never see the light of day: The Underbelly Project.

Located in Williamsburg at South 4th Street and completed in 2010, the Underbelly Project is a subterranean street art exhibit that aims to create street art for the artists themselves (and intrepid explorers) rather than for consumers. Curated by street artists Workhorse and PAC, the exhibit is not only illegal in nature, but also completely closed off from the public due to the inaccessibility of its location. The exhibit features art from renowned street artists across the globe, making it curiously famous and cloaked in secrecy at the same time.

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A post shared by #INVADES🔑 (@vic.invades) on Feb 13, 2019 at 4:30pm PST

Such an extraordinary location for an art exhibition implies an extraordinary curative process. PAC first discovered the abandoned subway through an urban explorer, and after meeting Workhorse, who works often with abandoned spaces, the two began the Underbelly Project in 2008. Workhorse describes the project as an “eternal show without a crowd”, an escape from the institutionalizing of street art in the world above ground.

Courtesy of @vic.invades

The project had major legal and physical risks. Not only would the artists be trespassing and vandalizing MTA property, but they also had to wait until the closest used platform was empty and traverse through the dark to the abandoned platform, a process rife with risks. Due to these dangers, the 103 street artists invited to work on the project were all escorted to the space and given one night each to work on their piece. Banksy himself was also invited and loved the concept of Underbelly, but had to turn down the offer in order to work on his own film. Despite the celebrity-status of some of the artists, all those invited were only one degree of separation from the curators in order to preserve trust and safety.

Courtesy of @vic.invades

Once chosen and committed, the artists had to finish their work in the one night allotted. If they ran out of materials, there would be no resurfacing and coming back the next day. If it seemed subway workers were close, the group turned off their lights and waited in the dark in silence. In one close call, one of the visiting artists from France fell backwards onto the subway track in the middle of the night. Fortunately, she was not seriously harmed, but her immediate injuries meant the group finally emerged from the subway at 5 AM.

Courtesy of @vic.invades

Courtesy of @vic.invades

The art itself is equally as stunning and haunting as the context in which it was created. Some pieces are of a more sinister nature, such as one image of a mouse wearing a gas mask, whereas others have a slight anarchistic tone, such as the “we own the night” piece. More lighthearted pieces also adorn the hallways, including the ironic painting of a man on the subway, colorful butterflies, and more abstract shapes. The variety of the art speaks to the diversity of styles and perspectives within street art, emphasizing further the importance of independent work and de-institutionalising the art form.

Courtesy of @vic.invades

After the exhibition was complete, the artists destroyed the mechanisms they used to enter the space, and it is now accessible only to those urban explorers like Vic who are daring enough to make their way through the subterranean darkness. This how the artists want it, however. The art is not meant to be sold at the highest price, a flaw they see in the way modern street art is created. Instead, the installation is a pure expression of the artists’ creative visions, and an experience that, thanks to Vic, is now more accessible to a curious public.

Although we won’t be going into the Underbelly station, you can learn about the world of NYC’s abandoned subway stations (and peer into several) on our upcoming Underground Tour of the NYC Subway:

Underground Tour of the NYC Subway

Next, check out 20 of NYC’s abandoned subway stations and platforms.