in the paint

Subway Graffiti Costs and Delays Up as New Generation Makes Its Mark

A graffiti-tagged train pulls into the 205th Street D station in the Bronx.
A graffiti-tagged train pulls into the 205th Street D station in the Bronx. Photo: Courtesy of Winston Mathis

A subway delay at the Norwood-205th Street stop in The Bronx last year didn’t come as a shock to Winston Mathis.

But the cause of the D train delay was straight out of the city’s “bad old days.”

“The announcement said the train is going to be delayed due to graffiti. And we were like, ‘Graffiti?’” said Mathis, 46.  “When it went past, it was like something you would have seen in the 70s or 80s — it was amazing and mind-boggling.”

Coated top to bottom in blue, brown and white spray paint, the tagged train was one of an increasing number of MTA subway cars getting hit by vandals.

The troubling trend saw New York City Transit’s annual graffiti cleaning costs surge to $610,956 in 2018 — an increase of 364% from the $131,539 spent just two years earlier.

Some 765 subway cars and 443 trains were affected last year by “major graffiti hits” — most of which occur while trains are stored on tracks overnight or during snowstorms — MTA data provided to THE CITY shows.

In 2016, 406 subway cars and 262 trains were hit and taken out of service. According to the MTA, “major hits” take more than two hours to clean.

Most of the artists come from outside of the U.S. for a shot at generating social media sizzle.

“The prize for a graffiti vandal is to tag a New York City train,” said Robert Diehl, New York City Transit’s senior vice president for safety and security. “It’s like a [deer] hunter looking for a 10-point buck.”

“It’s totally risky,” said Louie Gasparro, a Queens actor and musician who, more than 30 years ago, tagged trains as “KR.ONE.”

“You’re dealing with electricity, you’re dealing with trains passing,” he warned.

A graffiti-tagged train sits in a train yard at 207th Street in March, 2019.
A graffiti-tagged train sits in a train yard at 207th Street in March, 2019. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

The good news for the MTA is that “graffiti hits” through the first three months of 2019 were down more than 30% from the same period last year — figures that the agency says were aided, in part, by a mild winter that kept fewer trains from being stored underground overnight.

Of course, graffiti’s presence in the subway is nowhere near what it was in the 1970s and mid-1980s, when entire trains were covered in spray paint and became a symbol of a city and a transit system in decay.

By 1989, the MTA hit a milestone, when a C train covered in spray paint was sent to the showers — officially making the entire system graffiti-free, at least for a short while.

Local Scourge, International Sensation

The victory came with a big price tag: From 1972 to 1989, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent targeting graffiti.

By then, the images of brightly colored subway trains rumbling through stations and along elevated tracks had already made an international impact.

“Everyone who practiced graffiti [back then] lived in New York — it was a couple of thousand kids, let’s say,” Gasparro said. “But when these books on graffiti came out, it basically showed the world what was happening, it became an underground scene going international.”

Transit and police officials and graffiti veterans say taggers still travel to the city from around the world — even if vandalized trains are quickly taken in for cleaning.

“These people aren’t New Yorkers,” said James Top, who was part of “The Odd Partners” graffiti crew in the 1970s. “If they were, they would know you’re not going to get famous because nobody sees your work anymore.”

That hasn’t stopped the new generation of artists, many of whom post pictures or videos of their work on social media sites.

“If they post on social media, they are more trackable at that point,” Diehl said.

In 2018, the NYPD —  with help from MTA security and international police — arrested several graffiti taggers from Spain and forced them to pay for train-cleaning costs. One, a 24-year-old in the group was charged with spraying his “YESET” signature on subway trains in Manhattan.

“We prosecute to the fullest extent when someone is caught,” Diehl said. “We look for restitution.”

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