Graffiti in New York City

Graffiti in New York City

New York City graffiti is arguably the most recognizable street art in the world. From subway trains to rooftops to buildings, graffiti writers have always found a vast array of canvases to work on.

Train Bombing

The New York City subway is widely revered as the birthplace of modern graffiti. It was there that the first graffiti writers knew that their art would be seen by hundreds of commuters every single day. What better way to get high exposure without the art gallery costs? The only cost was if you were caught, and writers quickly became experts at slipping past authorities. The 80’s in NYC would be characterized by bubble-lettered tags, cartoon characters, and scenery painting every subway train.


Authorities classified the art form as outright vandalism and initiated the Clean Train Movement in 1985. Trains were either cleaned or outright replaced, with the last graffiti-covered train out of service by 1989. Undiscouraged, writers like VEN, KET, and COPE 2 moved to the rooftops. Places like the Lower East Side and Chinatown were turned into layered art pieces, an installation that could only be viewed from up high.

Street Galleries

Another set of artists reacted differently. When they took the trains away, writers took their graffiti to the streets. Literally. This was a difficult task due to severe penalties for caught writers, restrictions on buying paint, and the hard drug epidemic that had just begun. Instead of dimming their ambition, these issues fueled their fires and inspired socially conscious pieces that represented resistance in a turbulent New York City.

Graffiti in New York City was born in and nurtured by its subway system, whose accessibility and interconnectedness facilitated the rise of a community of writers and muralists. Although train graffiti is nowhere near as common as it was in the 80’s, writers have and will keep on finding newer and more daring places to express themselves.