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Brandon Bloch and Tim Sessler
A still from "The Art Underground - NYC Subway"
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With a few exceptions—including Metropolitan Transit Authority station employees, the morning barbershop quartet, and that guy camped out at the 14th street F stop—the New York City subway is first and foremost a place of transit. It moves four and a half million of us from one place to another, every day. What the four and a half million want from the subway is usually simple, too: a quick trip and an uncrowded car. But Ruddy Harootian sees it differently, and he helps others see it differently, too—which is why I decided to meet him at the Q DeKalb stop in Brooklyn on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
Harootian, a gangly native New Yorker, had moved back from Washington, D.C. less than a year before. If you’ve ever used the Washington Metro, you know that things operate differently in the capital. Train cars have carpeting, and you pay by distance traveled. There’s also an adorable panda snuggling with bamboo imprinted on your fare card. That may be why, upon returning to New York, Harootian saw the city through a new lens. “It was rediscovering New York all over again,” he says, “rediscovering the train station all over again.”
Harootian started documenting the art in the subway soon after. While he was taking pictures for his website, “Ruddy was Here,” people started asking questions about the pieces he was looking at: “Who had made them? What were they?” Above all, they asked the same thing he kept asking himself: “How come I never noticed this before?”
Not long after that, Harootian started his Subway Art Crawls. He now brings groups around on a Brooklyn to Manhattan route, showcasing the art embedded in the walls of four stations. The tours are often free (he works a day job as a coordinator for Americans visiting Spain). Interested parties email him to sign up. The actual meeting-up part is all “train luck,” as Harootian likes to call it, and hoping you can find the right mural. Since he launched his Art Crawls, Harootian has garnered press from AM New York, The Huffington Post, and Curbed NY. A video highlighting the tours, accompanied by a Ratatat soundtrack and produced by friends Brandon Bloch and Tim Sessler, has over 45,000 hits.
Harootian stood in front of “Dekalb Improvisation,” a 66-foot long mosaic work designed by Stephen T. Johnson, to meet the group I intended to join for a tour. However, due to how close the subway is to hell during the summer—think imagery from the Inferno and Sartre’s famous saying, “Hell is other people”—the tour had drawn only nine of us underground. Haroo- tian began by asking what we saw in the mosaic. A collage of things above ground, and below it. The letters of the subway lines. Terracotta and glass tile. Pieces of a torn King playing card—for “Kings County.”
“Most of the artists have two or three agendas,” he told us. The first is to be loud. That’s an agenda directed by the MTA, which wants work that can compete with the crowds, the noise, the stuff that can make a train ride—to the uninitiated—a very intense experience. The art cannot be minimalist— and, to survive through the grit, piss, and cleaning chemicals of the transit system, the materials have to be hardy. Those second or third agendas, however, are up to the artist.
The art that Harootian shows is largely part of MTA Arts for Transit. Launched in the late 1980s, the program was introduced in coordination with a wealth of other infrastructure updates. For years, the system had been plagued by shootings, strikes, crimes of all natures, and equipment that was falling apart—sometimes right onto passengers. To the chagrin of the MTA, the ’80s also welcomed graffiti to New York, with the subway cars as their primary canvas. Arts for Transit was a faction of the MTA designed to clean up what had come to be seen as a transit system in dire need of overhaul. There are now hundreds of permanent artworks in stations across the five boroughs, and up to one percent of the MTA’s budget can be used for station rehabilitation or construction of art.
Just before we get on the Q toward 23rd St., a woman in a blue MTA polo sidles up to our group: “I see this everyday. What is this? I never knew—I always wanted to know. I’m serious, I look at it every day.” She stands with us for a while, looking at the tiles, before heading back to work. Harootian speaks over the screech of passing trains. The group listens as people give us interested, sometimes peeved stares, since we’re standing close to a stairway. One man tells Harootian that he’s rolling with a “sexy crew.” On the Q, we pass by Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope,” a flipbook of sorts, where images appear to move as the train flies by. The other commuters are absorbed in conversations, the newspaper, sleeping, but our tour crowds the subway windows to get a better view.
At 23rd St., the group “tries on” mosaic hats representing famous New York characters. At 42nd St., there’s a 16-panel Roy Lichtenstein mural, a Jacob Lawrence piece, a mosaic of modern Persephone, and a work entitled “Losing Your Marbles.” Whimsical Tom Otterness sculptures greet the group at 14th St. Look at them closely, and you’ll see their “second agenda”: a commentary on city corruption. After two hours underground, we split up at that stop, leaving on our own trains, headed to our own stations, our own neighborhoods.
It was back above ground that I realized subway art is certainly about the masterpieces—but it’s more about the membership. Few go into the subway system looking to stay there for a long time, but many go into the same station, everyday, for years. And that’s a lot of time. “It’s a very personal experience,” Harootian told us a couple of times. “You’re not in a museum. This is your world.”
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