Subway spelunkers: Book collects glimpses of NYC underground, hidden graffiti

subway nyc underground graffiti beneath the streets matt litwack jurne
A graffiti artist stands atop a wooden plank covering the electrified third rail is just one common image of the NYC underground.
Credit: Gingko Press

Every day, more than 5.5 million people ride along New York City’s 660 miles for passenger service between its 24 subway and shuttle routes.

The city’s network of subways and the life that streams through it are intrinsic to New York’s culture, as is what’s hidden within its unlit sections that riders speed past on their commutes.

Where there are subway tunnels, there are people willing to break routine — and usually the law — to see that part of the city that so many never get to see. Over the years, some have literally left their mark on the dark corridors and dirty walls

A new book, “Beneath the Streets” collects glimpses into that underground life through more than 500 photos that also captures a glimpse into the city’s forbidden love affair with graffiti culture over the years.

Brooklyn-born muralist Matt Litwack and California-based graffiti artist JURNE spoke with Metro New York about their book and their own experiences along the tracks — even if they can’t say where they got the never-before-seen images.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Metro: What brought about your fascination with the subway system?

Litwack: Well, the history of graffiti can be found there, which fascinated me at a young age. It’s like a time capsule, with some of the graffiti dating back to the 1970s. It’s also a timeless environment — there’s nothing down there different than what it was 55 years ago or longer in some cases.

JURNE: It really is crazy to see all the layers of history that are down there, seeing tags signed by writers who left them before I was born.

At least when you were younger, though, how much of that appeal was the danger?

Litwack: There was definitely a real adrenaline that came from being around the trains. I was young at the time, smaller than i am now. But it was really a dangerous thing. I don’t encourage anyone to put their life in their hands and go down there.

What were some of those dangers?

Litwack: The moving trains are 400 tons of steel coming at at least 45 mph. The third rail is always live, and you have to deal with areas where there are or aren’t clearance between the wall and the track.

subway underground graffiti beneath the streets matt litwack jurne
Light switches along a subway track shine green.
Credit: Gingko Press

So what is it about the underground keeps artists going back?

JURNE: I always feel when I go down to places that are tucked away and hidden, that no one’s ever been there. Of course there have been, but hardly anyone has — and that’s the sort of exclusive experience.

Litwack: A lot of people also just like the silence down there. Once their eyes adjust and they feel relatively safe, there’s also a real peacefulness and quietness down there.

If the city’s gone through so much over the decades, why are these invisible works relevant?

JURNE: I think it’s unfortunate that there isn’t as much graffiti as there used to be. New York’s graffiti is hugely influential around the world. and that era of graffiti is gone — except for what’s down in the tunnels.

What place do you think graffiti — old or new — has in a city where police have cracked down on it?

Litwack: New York City is just always changing, so you almost can’t be upset that its not here anymore — it’s just something that happened. Graffiti came at a time with a lack of economic resources, and a better economy has meant graffiti is gone. It was a sign of the time, and a wonderful phenomenon, but I think the glory days are over.


“Obviously customers are certainly not allowed in the tracks,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said. “They risk being struck by a train or serious injury by other dangerous situations.”

Anyone caught within the subway system faces at the minimum misdemeanor trespassing charges, which can mean up to a year in jail.

Those with intent to tag while underground can also face charges criminal mischief, making graffiti or even possession of graffiti instruments. Graffiti-related damage to property valued at greater than $250 is also eligible for felony charges.

Underground lingo

Layups are underground depots where trains are parked overnight and often the target of local taggers.
Work bums, otherwise known as subway workers, and who Litwack said have a difficult but thankless job.
Blood and Bones refers to the red and white “no clearance” strips along the tunnels to get out of the area in case of an incoming train.
• The hatch was often the best bet for getting out of the tunnels between stations and back up top — and fast.

Buy the book

“Beneath the Streets: The Hidden Relics of New York’s Subway System” is available for pre-order through Gingko Press on Amazon and for sale on July 11.

A book release party is scheduled for July 10 at powerHouse Arena at powerHouse Arena, located at 37 Main St in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Visit the Gingko Press website for more information.

Follow Chester Jesus Soria on Twitter @chestersoria


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