Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Man 1: Do you hear that? One of the most beautiful sound on Earth.
Roman: I grew up mainly in Ohio. And in the 80’s, I only knew about New York City from the movies. And all the movies, every single one of them had this one establishing shot that said, “Audience, we are in New York City.” It was a graffiti covered subway.
Man 1: Oh, it’s beautiful.
Roman: For me, a suburban kid from Ohio, that graffiti was exciting. But it didn’t seem artistic or complicated, it was just scary hooliganism.
Man 1: Too bad you can’t see.
Ann: The graffiti was a total mystery to me, too.
Roman: Producer Ann Heppermann grew up in Nebraska. Also far, far from New York City.
Ann: They were like, technicolor hieroglyphics.
Man 1: You’re doing the bowed Z. Oh he doing his [beep], back to front.
Ann: All of these intersecting lines and colors, I mean, I knew that they were letters, I just never knew what they said. New York was another planet and graffiti was its language.
Man 2: There’s only 26 letters to the alphabet. But somehow, graffiti writers manipulate it and they make it theirs.
Ann: And those trains looked so cool on the outside. But the inside, was a whole other story.
David: You would not have gotten on that subway, the place was filthy. The train smelled, they were dirty. The floor is stuck to the floor. And you got stuck in the tunnels, and the cars filled up with smoke. And I mean, it was a scary place to be.
Ann: In the 1970’s and 80’s, says this guy David Gunn, the New York City Subway was like some kind of, Dantean hellscape. With fire and bloodshed and gangs.
[gun shots sounds]
Man 3: Run. We just get out of here!
Caleb: There was definitely a sense that the subways were totally controlled by wild gangs of teenagers, and kinda were.
Roman: Now all you boppers out there know that amongst the gangs, there were The Rogues, The Gramercy Riffs, everyone’s favorite, The Baseball Furies and of course, The Warriors.
Man 4: I want you to hit everything in sight. I want everybody to know The Warriors were there.
Ann: Artist Caleb Nelan wields a mean spray can himself, but he even admits–
Caleb: Graffiti was simply just the symbol that the city had lost control and it was a symbol that, who knew what the future lay with cities. It could be terrible. And nothing pisses people off more than writing they can’t read.
Roman: So starting in the early 70s, the Mayors of New York City vowed to eradicate graffiti. First, Mayor John Lindsay.
Caleb: He took office at really like, one of the worst times for any New York Mayor.
Ann: Lindsay formed the first anti-graffiti task force. And he turned graffiti from a nuisance–
Caleb: Took it out of the category of littering or something like that.
Ann:– into a crime.
Caleb: –into being a misdemeanor.
Ann: But subway graffiti persisted. It was the problem that wouldn’t go away.
Roman: For two decades, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, also known as the MTA, failed miserably trying to fix its graffiti problem. Sometimes laughably, like the time they decided to repaint 7,000 subway cars all white. They called it The Great White Fleet.
Caleb: Oddly, what the graffiti movement needed at that time was new real estate. And then before you knew it, you had the entire subway car covered in spray paint.
Ann: And then, there was Ed Koch’s Berlin Wall method.
Roman: Koch doubled up the fences in the yards. All of them topped with razorwire, thus creating a no man’s land between them. Plus, attack dogs. Here’s Mayor Koch.
Mayor Koch: What I said, build two fences and have the dog run between the two fences and that will keep people out and protect the dog from stepping on a third rail. And the response was, “Well maybe someone will climb over the fence and the dog will might them.” I said, “Well I thought that’s what the dog was for.”
Roman: And the razor wire topped fences, and the German Shepherds worked.
Ann: Until the graffiti writers realized that they could distract the dogs with food and cut through the fences.
Roman: Desperate people take desperate measures, and the transit officials were desperate. No one knew what to do.
Ann: Until David Gunn.
David: I’m David Gunn and I was president of the New York City Transit Authority for six years.
Ann: From 1984 to 1990.
Roman: If transit systems had halls of fame, David Gunn would be right up in front.
Ann: David Gunn cleaned up subways in Boston, Philly, DC and Toronto. He headed up Amtrak for a while too. He seemed invincible.
Roman: But when it came to New York City, in 1984–
David: My initial reaction was no because it was– just looked to be a hopeless situation.
Ann: Gunn’s actual words were “suicide mission.” But then his mother stepped in.
David: [laughs] At that point, she was in her 80s. She said, “You better take that or everybody will think you’re a coward.” [laughs]
Roman: Moms, you gotta love moms.
Ann: Gunn hit the ground running with something he called, “The Clean Train Program.”
David: You know, everybody says, “You cleaned up the cars” yeah we did. We got the cars clean but we also fixed them. The clean train became sort of symbolic of the fact that the thing worked.
Ann: And here’s the difference between you and me, and David Gunn. When we see graffiti, we think about it in terms of aesthetics. We may like it or hate it, but we’re reacting to it visually. David Gunn looks right past all of those wild style letters, and sees a transit system not doing its job.
David: When you see graffiti, you got bad maintenance. Because having equipment cleaned is part of maintenance.
Roman: For decades, people in charge treated subway graffiti like it was a sanitation problem. Gunn says, that’s all wrong. It wasn’t just a sanitation problem. It was something else entirely.
Ann: Gunn says, the root of the problem was MTAs deferred maintenance program. In the 70s, New York City was broke, and the city pays for a big chunk of the transit authority’s operating budget. So they ask the MTA to reduce its budget because fewer people were riding the subways.
Roman: The MTA made the worst decision. They cut back on the things that kept the subways running. Routine inspections, replacing parts, even subway mechanics.
Ann: And what you expect to happen, happened. The subway deteriorated, breakdowns tripled, trains derailed nearly every two weeks. And get this, in 1981, there were 1,800 subway car fires.
Roman: 1,800. Ridership should go down when there’s 1,800 fires.
Ann: No wonder David Gunn called running the MTA a suicide mission. But still, he took it on. First, he hired 1,500 non-union managers and increased repair staff. He rebuilt thousands of cars.
Roman: They had new control cases, rebuild trucks, new motors, air compressors, motor alternators–
David: –air compressors, motor alternators. The whole nine yards.
Ann: Here’s the thing about maintenance, it’s not sexy. It takes years to see improvements.
Roman: Gunn knew people needed to see something now. Or in this case, not see something.
David: My approach was to drive the bastards out and to clean up the mess they made and fix the equipment. And we gradually drove the little bastards into a corner.
Roman Mars: By little bastards, if it’s not obvious, Gunn meant everyone vandalizing the trains.
Ann: And here’s how he did it.
Caleb: He figured out a way to do it systemically, line by line.
Roman: Again, that’s artist Caleb Nelan.
Ann: Like the A-line or the one line or the two line.
Caleb: Taking the seven line off the map for graffiti writers.
Roman: While they were fixing it, they didn’t allow any graffiti on it. Zero.
Ann: And if graffiti artists bombed a train car–
Roman: Bombed, in this case means covering the outside of the train with graffiti. If an artist managed that–
Ann: The MTA pulled it from the system, even during rush hour.
David: It was tough going at first. I mean, we had that– one day I ended up pulling 500 cars out of service.
Roman: And it worked, and people knew it because the could see it.
Ann: Gunn achieved the impossible. He got rid of graffiti on New York City subways. There’s even an official date, May 12th, 1989.
Caleb: People remember the VE and VJ Day. [laughs] You know, this was like their greatest generation moment for the people who ran the subway system. This was the time when they were declaring victory.
Roman: The transit authority held a ceremony that day.
David: It was up at 207th street stop.
Ann: That’s at the end of the A-train. All of the MTA brass and a lot of employees were there.
Roman: Mayor Ed Koch was there too.
David: Privately, I kidded him about the fact that I bet he never thought he’d see that day [laughs], and he said I was right. [laughs]
Ann: They even made commemorative t-shirts.
David: They were red, and they had the old New York City transit authority logo on them and down below it said, “graffiti free” and the date that worked for years. [laughs]
Ann: It’s funny now to ride the subway and imagine that there ever was so much graffiti. I mean, I lived in New York for almost 10 years now. And no graffiti covered subway has ever pulled up to my stop. I always wondered, where did the graffiti go? I thought the answer might be more complex.
Roman: But this time for once, the answer is simple. You can point to a man, David Gunn.
Caleb: David Gunn tried and click a lot of New Yorkers was this white knight coming in to fix the subway system. And to graffiti writers, he was this Darth Vader character and took away their fun and ultimately was better at taking away their fun than they were at sustaining it.
Roman: May 12, 1989, the day subway graffiti died.
Roman: Okay, hold up. The story is not over. Graffiti didn’t actually end that day.
Ann: There is still subway graffiti. But because of David Gunn’s clean train program, it’s almost become impossible for us on the outside to see. It almost never leaves the train yards. MTA crews are on patrol there, constantly looking for graffiti and hosing it off with these crazy solvents if they see any.
Roman: And they see it. An international gallery of it, in fact.
Caleb: So the kid from Munich would go paint subways in Paris. The kid in Paris would go paint subways Amsterdam.
Ann: Graffiti writers today are kind of like stamp collectors, heading to Berlin’s U-Bahn to Paris Metro and the London Tube to put into their album.
Roman: Collections are judged by two things, size and value. The subway graffiti completist would have to hit 190 systems in 54 countries. And as for value, there’s only one that matters.
Caleb: There’s a real way of thinking in graffiti, which I don’t think is entirely wrong. Which says, you’re not a real writer until you got your piece on a New York subway.
Joe: It’s kind of like the holy grail of all trains, you know.
Roman: Right now, spray painting a New York subway car is a felony. If painters get caught, it could mean jail time and thousands of dollars in fines. Graffiti artists have to ask themselves, is this worth it?
Joe: I’m pretty nervous talking on the microphone right now even about it because you know, it’s not really something that people like, “great. you’re painting the subway. That’s very nice, thank you for doing that”, that’s total opposite, you know.
Ann: This is Joe or at least, that’s what he wanted me to call him. Joe is a graffiti artist from South Africa. He hits trains in countries around the world. He didn’t want to say if he was going to hit New York.
Ann: [laughs] You can’t say?
Joe: I can’t say. No, no. I’m not.
Roman: We distorted Joe’s voice to protect his identity. That’s the only way that he would agree to talk to us.
Ann: Joe’s never been caught, but it’s been close.
Joe: I’ve looked, seen a flashlight and turned around to tell the guy that someone is coming for us and when I’ve turned around, he’s already like, running.
Vincent: We actually caught a couple of guys from Australia just last week, who were trying to breach our security and go into a yard.
Ann: And now, Vincent DeMarino. He’s the vice president of security for the MTA and New York City transit. He sees guys from all over the world in New York’s train yards.
Roman: DeMarino didn’t have hard numbers of who gets caught from where in the yards. But when a train gets hit in New York, the graffiti artist is more likely to be from say, Spain or France. Not from New York. Someone put the ratio at something like 80:20.
Vincent: The international folks, cost them a lot of money to do. You know, if I was to get on a plane, I’d go somewhere and sit on the beach. I wouldn’t buy an airplane ticket to go commit a crime on a train yard.
Ann: Graffiti artists say, that’s part of the draw. It’s a rush to break the law.
Man 5: Now I want to get over this [beep] fence.
Joe: It’s hard to resist. It’s exciting at first when you go inside to the yard and you stand on the floor and you’re not on the platform and you see how big this train really is. I mean, when you’re on the platform, the train is a train. When you’re on the floor next to it, it’s like an iron beast, you know? It’s a little bit it’s intoxicating. The smell and the sound are so much more intense because you’re already like, super nervous.
Man 5: Look what’s coming at you, what is it?
Joe: There’s not much that could beat that feeling. It’s like, better than sex, you know? Like better than money, better than anything. It’s like, that’s why people do it. That’s why someone would risk their career and their life to press the button on the spray can to put colors on a train, you know?
Cete: I’ve seen that Europeans doing it, so I’m like, why New York does he doing it? Like this is where it’s from, this where it was built that like, I see no one let bring the trains back.
Ann: This is Cete.
Cete: I spell it C-E-T-E, and then I have a two letter CT. The same thing on these clean trains, if people don’t get it.
Ann: Cete tells me he always feels like an old soul, but I call him romantic.
Cete: I see them on trains, and I see subway art and I’m like, damn I miss this time.
Ann: Cete bombed not one, but two trains this year. The first was the R train. It was a spy versus spy theme. It took about 11 cans and an hour to paint, but days and days of preparation.
Cete: Now I study these lines, I study the times, I even study down to the workers because if you could find a lazy worker one day, hey you can do a lot of stuff and this MTA, they have a lot of lazy workers.
Ann: the second train he hit was a B Train. This time, with a Pink Panther theme.
Cete: We had the whole day planned, like recon mission.
Roman: And here’s what ties Cete and David Gunn together. Both men, have spent a lot of time scrutinizing the weak points in the MTA system.
Ann: Cete dreams of bringing back New York subway graffiti. But the number of hits are rapidly declining. In 2007, there were 75 yard hits. So far this year, only nine.
Roman: The MTA police force can take some credit for those numbers, but there is another factor.
Caleb: I find it hard to think of graffiti writers who are much under 25. And a lot of the most active people that I know are in their 40s, honestly. Graffiti as an art form may just age out at some point.
Ann: And if subway graffiti did die out, how would we even know?
Roman: The artists know that their work will never be seen by the public at large. They break into the train yard, paint their murals and immediately after, the subway cars are scrubbed clean by MTA workers.
Ann: The art form is totally ephemeral. It reminds me of those Tibetan sand mandalas made to disappear.
Cete: If you thinking this stuff is gonna live forever, it’s not. Everything you do will turn into [beep] one day.
Roman: Pretty much all that keeps that from happening right now is social media. There are invitation only Instagram accounts where subway bombers post their work before it disappears. Those painted trains that crossed our movie screens on countless establishing shots of dirty New York City in the 1970’s, they’re just a little square on your smartphone now.
Ann: And by the time you see them, they’re already gone.
Cete: My love is the trains. It’s always gonna be trains till the casket drop. It’s always gonna be trains and yeah, that’s about it. yeah. Let’s roll.
Roman: Until the casket drops or until the NYPD anti-graffiti unit called The Vandal Squad, catches up to you. Which is what happened to Cete, he was arrested and charged with more than 180 misdemeanor counts for things like possession of a graffiti instrument and intention to damage property, along with some felony charges. He took a plea deal, agreed to pay nearly $19,000 in restitution charges and is now on probation.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ann Hepperman, with help from Julie Barton, Robbie Flores, Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced of the offices of Arcsine, the coolest architecture firm and beautiful graffiti adept downtown of Glen, California.