7 Incredible Images Of New York City Subways in the 70s and 80s


When one conjures up images of New York City, its subway system — whether you love it or hate it — is the "artery" that literally keeps the city moving. The New York subway system has come a long way since its inception in 1908. While it's still one of the few remaining places left in the city where a diverse mesh of people and ideas meet, the explosion of graffiti street art as a movement was the latest manifestation in the culture wars of the 1970s in NYC. 

The debate between city officials who argued that graffiti was vandalism and should not be romanticized into an art form went against the burgeoning street-art of up and coming artists and crews. Whether you agree or not, graffiti and its unique free-form style made a tremendous impact in hip-hop especially in the realm of break-dancing. 

The 1970s was a tumultuous time in NYC’s history. The city had financial problems and could not afford to maintain the infrastructure of the trains. Raising fares was a no-go, since it was raised earlier. The public trust in the security fell during this period. The police force was unable to provide adequate security to effectively squash the rampant crime , the most famous being — the Son of Sam, serial killer David Berkowitz who was on the loose in 1976.  

The hip-hop documentary, Style Wars, (1983) is an excellent primer to understanding the the graffiti subway-art movement.

For the artists, “tagging” became a way to showcase their work throughout the city with dreams of becoming the “king” or “queen.”  First and foremost, engaging in this form of free-style art, wasn’t a way to gain mainstream celebrity status (although some did become mainstream artists afterward). Rather, the main motivation was seeing one's work displayed on the moving canvas of the subway cars. 

Lee Quinones, was at the forefront of the subway graffiti art movement. His early works in the NYC's subway lines enabled him to crossover and accepted as a mainstream artist.  His works are housed at the Whitney Museum, the Groninger Museum (Groningen, Netherlands), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam, Netherlands). His works have been exhibited at the New Museum Of Contemporary Art (New York City), the Museum of National Monuments (Paris, France), and the Staatliche Museum (Germany).  

The initial attraction of the subway cars was due to its smooth surface and provided the perfect moving canvas to showcase one's work as the train made its way throughout the city. During the apex of the graffiti subway-art movement was evident by the 3,000 graffiti crews estimated to be working on the subway lines. It wasn't uncommon for several crews to be working together. But by the 1980s, the development of new chemicals and technology that made the cleaning of graffiti easier, proved to be the death of subway art in NYC. Meanwhile graffiti art has made an incredible impact in international stage.

Check out Global Street Art: a collective arena of international artists' work who are involved in street art and graffiti. Currently, they have 50,000 art pieces from 20 countries. 

Here are some incredible images that stand out:


People on the train still eat on the run. 



Here is a piece by famed artist Lee working in conjunction with The Fabulous Five, the Brooklyn-based graffiti artist. 1979. Lee has incorporated ideas of socio-political elements into his art pieces.

4. "Stop the Bomb," 1979

5. "Bitrock and Revolt," 1980. Photograph taken by Henry Chalfant

Check out Henry Chalfant's archived photos over at the New York Times for more detailed photos.

6. "Hand of Doom," 1980

7. "Children of the Grave, part 2," 1980 

Dondi White was made famous for his work, Children of the Grave — parts 1, 2, and 3. This work encompassed three separate works. Photojournalist Martha Cooper captured the artwork from start to finish and can be accessed here.

Tom Meyers and Greg Young (a.k.a. the Bowery Boys) have a great podcast detailing the origins of how graffiti art transformed NYC from 1970s to 1990s right here.  Their episodes covering aspects of NYC history is in-depth and truly fascinating.

Also check out Global Street Art: a collective arena of international artists' work who are involved in street art and graffiti. Currently, they have 50,000 art pieces from 20 countries. Although the roots of graffiti street-art have its roots in NYC, it has gained popularity throughout the world.