Underbelly Project – NY subway art

Photos as credited by: Luna Park, Ian Cox aka Wallkandy,RemiRough,
James Garrett

Sources – Sunday Times, New York Times

The duty of the street artist shall be to create art taking risks, pushing boundaries and exploring territories so that the more risk averse among us may vicariously thrill and admire. Note for once the curious omission of the word “public”. Writing in today’s Sunday Times (UK) magazine (31 Oct 2010) and the online NY Times, Jasper Rees reveals a secret project in which about 100 artists have created an illegal and in-accessible gallery of graffiti and street art to re-affirm a fans belief in the spirit of (errr)”street art”.

In a nutshell, two people going by the pseudonyms Workhorse and Pac have been spent 18 months escorting a selection of graffiti and street artists into a dis-used hidden underground station on the NY Metro to create and leave a single piece of original art on the walls.

Underbelly – Photo: Emile Souris via The Sunday Times

The artists mentioned in the article are undoubtedly of the highest calibre. Whilst you may criticise a book for its curation when it seeks to preach about the top 1,000 street artists, I guess in this case the selection process depends a little on who the project dudes know and can trust, who the folk they know know, who they can cold call and interest in the project and so on in a sort of viral spiral selection process. It would be interesting to know who said no. Banksy is identified for one (“thou shalt not publish a street art article in the mainstream press witout mentioning Banksy”. Opps – and in a blog 😉 ) .

Graffoto spoke to one of the artists identified in the Sunday Times. He was invited to come to new York for a painting event and took a lot of persuasion, principally as the flimsy information he was given was unlikely to convince his wife that he wasn’t just swanning off to NY for a lads’ weekend. Things became a little clearer after committing to travel but even the day he went into the station he had little idea of the brick canvas on which he would be placing his work.

“I met at Workhorse’s place for a rather limited briefing about what we could expect, they showed us a filmed walk through of the access so we’d be prepared for the risks involved and they had allocated a spot which they thought would work. “

Anyone slightest familiar with painting in train tunnels will know the most common access involves walking off the end of platforms, after first checking for public, workers, CCTV and other detectors. Our friend confirms in essence that was how the march to the abandoned station commenced, though the trek itself was longer and more convoluted than the Sunday Times article would lead you to believe.

“The place was pitch black, I could see very little work done by the other artists, I saw a Lucy MacLauchlan, the only light down in the place was the small amount of floodlighting on the spot I was painting. The organisers hastily rigged the lights and set up their time lapse cameras for documenting the work”.

The place was un-nerving, fear of detection by the authorities blended with legends telling of angry subterranean dwellers, mutant rats and tunnel prowling crocodiles easily spooked out of towners. According to the emerging stories, the station is one of many which were built by the ambitious and pre Great Crash NY authorities in the 20s to meet the grand aspiration of a station every 200 yards.

The process of entering and painting is recalled by our contact as “cloak and dagger yet incredibly intense”. The most gratifying aspect for this artist wasn’t the clandestine operation or the awesome collection of work coming together, it was getting to paint in New York, home turf for the 1970s NY graffiti legends which led the young artist to pick up a can many ago.
“Painting in New York has a strong resonance, I have been there nine times and this was the first time I had actually painted there” he said.

ROA – Photo: Luna Park

The organisers guided over 100 (UK Sunday Times), i.e. 103 (NY Times) artistes into the spot at various intervals over the past 18 months. NY policy don’t pussy around when they catch illegal art being created on the steets, never mind on MTA property so the stakes were incredibly high in this illegal undertaking. Meticulous planning and execution of each visit was required to minimise the risk of detection. Artists were only allowed 3-4 hours to complete their work. Due to the incredibly limited light available and very restricted amount of time allowed underground, our friend the artist regrets that he actually only saw a fraction of the work which had been completed.

The roster of artists drawn to the project by the organisers is very impressive. From the various “authorised” sources, we can identify: Boxi, Ethos, London Police, SheOne, Remi Rough, Stormie Mills, Damon Ginandes, Lucy MacLauchlan, Swoon, Logan Hicks, Aiko, Faile, Ron English, Flying Fortress, Imminent Disaster, Dan Witz, Elbow Toe, Ripo, Paru Ana Ana Peru, Michael De Feo, WK Interact, Roa, Specter, Demer, Momo, Posterchild, Saber, Trusto Corp, Sinboy, Cash4, Rone Nick Walker, Revok, Ceaze, Know Hope, L’Atlas, M-City, Mark Jenkins, Meggs, Kid Acne, Lister, Jeff Soto, Smith/Sane, Gaia, Noh J Coley and a long list of names new to Graffoto including Jim Darling, Thundercut, Daryll Peirce, Surge, Spazmat, Ema, Joe Lurato, Guilerme, JMR, Asylum, Gould, Indigo, Jeff Stark, Bigfoot, Kid Zoom, Strafe.

There is a website for Underbelly which went live yesterday, at present it is a single page with a tantalising underground photograph and a blurred out list of artists. More material is promised soon.

Damon Ginades – photo James Garrett via The Sunday Times

Graffoto is Olympic qualifying standard at interpreting the blurry appearance art acquires towards the tail end of a good lap of Thursday night openings in London, it may be wishful thinking to imagine that in the blurry list on the Underbelly website we can make out other names which may be Judith Supine, Chris Stain, Dick Chicken, Jon Burgerman, Skewville.

One effect of Cans Festival was to bring a number of the participants to much greater public awareness and one suspects that the interest in this project will be huge and that some participating artists will experience a similar ascendance.

Curiously, the two mainstream newspaper articles give sufficient information to make a reasonably intelligent guess at identifying who Workhorse is, which is certainly not Underbelly’s preference.

Revok/Ceaze – photo Luna Park

The newspaper articles are worth reading for the first hand reports from some of the artists and the direct quotes of the organiser Workhorse. I don’t begrudge street artists or graffiti artists making money from their skills. I do detest them wringing their hands about the commercial corruption of the scene. Rees quotes Workhorse as saying “We finally had a space in the world [which] collectors couldn’t contaminate. A space that couldn’t be bought”. This lamenting about the good ol days when they did what they did for themselves and the buzz and because they had time and if someone else liked it that was a bonus is all a bit self indulgent. Don’t give us this bullshit about us how evil we are for participating in a market that sustains you. You did this for the thrill and I hope the artistic satisfaction, not because “we” forced you to desperate lengths to protect your non commercial activity.

That’s merely to quibble with a description of the motive, the actual project itself is un-questionably mind-blowing. A photographer who has been down there spoke to Graffoto about the sensations and dangers of being down in the subway station

“I could see the dust in the air, it was like you were under water and disturbed the seabed.”

The hazardous nature of the dust is graphically illustrated by what the photographer found emerging from the subway.

“The torch I had had a magnet on the back so you could stick it on metal things, when I came out of there, the bottom of my torch was cake in dust particles, specifically on the magnet so the dust had a very high metal content, evidence of brake dust and rail dust coming up.”

The privileged journalist writing in the papers says that the occasion he witnessed was the last visit by the Underbelly organisers. He says that on exit they destroyed the means of access. Graffoto has seen photos of subway tunnel graffiti in places such as NY’s Freedom tunnel and In Paris and many other cities it is possible but incredibly dangerous to explore catacombs, underground storm drains (beware – the most lethal) and sewage systems, we are willing to predict a resurgence in extreme urban tourism, the hunt for the space shall commence!

Sane/Smith – Photo: Ian Cox

This project would have the Graffoto glands secreting, Jasper Rees hopefully appreciates how lucky he is to have got the gig, guess we’ll never know how but there’s a shitload of documenter envy heading in the direction of that dude.

Stormie/RemiRough – photo RemiRough

The project really captures the essence of street art and graffti, where risk is paramount and commercial considerations secondary (merely secondary in this case,not absent, Graffoto would need some persuading that it didn’t occur to anyone that the big reveal might, just might, stimulate a blizzard of beneficial publicity). Reading this Graffoto post is no substitute for visiting the various anointed sources. Firstly, the two Jasper Rees accounts are at The Sunday Times (subscription required) and New York Times. In substance the accounts are the same but the anecdotes in each come from UK and NY artists respectively. The NY version has a slideshow of far more images than the other sources.

Secondly source must be the Underbelly site. As Graffoto understands, there may possibly be further videos or timelapse clips of work to go up there some time in the future, roll on!

Photos taken by Luna Park have been posted on her blog and hats off to her, she has clearly had a fantastic experience, her own personal private Cans Festival and has taken some stunning photos under extreme conditions (no light!). Don’t bother with subscriptions or whatever, head over to Luna Park’s post here.

Luna Park’s UK’s equivalent prince of street art photography, Mr Ian Cox aka Wallkandy also had the privilege of a visit to the Underbelly project. His equally awestruck account and amazing photographs are on his Wallkandy blog.

RJ of Vandalog has also been down there, his account speaks of someone who can barely contain his excitement.

UPDATE (4 Nov 2010) = Reactions to this project have been mixed and polar; strong enethusiasm (Graffoto!) and deeply hostile. In the latter camp would be many Urbex aficionados and it is clear why this disclosure would offend their usual modus operendi, plus others critical of the “not intended for commercial gain” stance whilst creating a storm of publicity in the “reveal” (also Graffoto). News has broken that within three days of the articles appearing in the press, a lot of the works have been dogged. see pics here.

Graffoto is fortunate that it had no inkling that there was any such project underway so when the sunday magazine fell open on the right page, from zero awareness to instantaneous full impact was a delicious sensation. Shame if you happened to be vaguely aware about it before hand 😉

UNRELATED BUT IMPORTANT NEWS: readers of Graffoto may be interested to know that the Wallkandy Forum has re-opened, head over there for more mature pontificating on street art, urban art and graffiti than one or two other forums that we won’t mention. Note that the old doesn’t appear to work, you have to use the Enjoy, participate and play friendly.

0 replies on “Underbelly Project – NY subway art”

Thanks &rew. This post was a bit of a novelty because we had no inkling about Underbelly before reading the Sunday Times at the weekend so it hit us with a huge WOW. I doubt if there has ever been a Graffoto post based on something which Graffoto had no first hand experience of and no photos of its own. Underbelly is that good!

Oh yeah – sign up for the email alerts dude, we don't publish too much or too often but we like to think the posts might just be worth a little read now and again.

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