The greatest show unearthed/London Times Magazine by Jasper Rees
The greatest show unearthed
In an abandoned station under New York City, the most exclusive gallery in the world stands as a protest against the commercialisation of street art
I am at the opening of a swanky new gallery. Around me, the latest daubs by the hottest names adorn the walls of room after room. It’s worth mentioning a couple of discrepancies from your regular opening. This is a canapé-free environment, for one. There is no chilled white wine, no pretentious appraisal of carefully lit works. Nobody has come dressed to thrill. In fact nobody has come at all. Apart from me.
As it happens, I am the only person who will ever be invited to view the complete collection, and it’s not as if I’m even a guest. I am here as an independent witness to testify that this place does exist, that it is not an elaborate art hoax mocked up in a studio. After tonight, the gallery will be sealed off for ever, and all the art entombed within it. This is the opening night, but it is also the closing night.
It is for this reason that I can’t say where I am. The location is entirely top secret. Okay, I can say I’m in New York City. To be more specific, I am under New York. But that is it. I can give away no more specifics. Why? Because what I am about to describe is totally and utterly illegal. Welcome to the Underbelly project, an artistic venture of towering ambition, matchless audacity and sheer bloody cheek.
If they get through tonight, they will have successfully brought more than 100 artists to the site, undetected and unprosecuted We muster at street level. Me, a couple of gents in arty fatigues, and a camerawoman. Naturally I can’t say where the rendezvous point is, but it’s on a corner next to a diner. It is still light and warm when we turn and head down into the subway. I’ve been told it will be hot down there, so have come to work in a breathable running top.
We zap through the barrier and onto the platform. The idea, I’ve been advised, is to look inconspicuous. We are careful not to acknowledge one another’s presence as a train pulls in. We get on and coolly pretend we have never met. Which in my case was, until 10 minutes ago, entirely true.
At the next stop we alight. In the interests of security, I am not at liberty to describe the station.
There are subway buffs out there who can definitely identify the line from the colour of the tiles, and probably name the station from the quality of the grouting. They’re called “foamers” because they froth rabidly at the mouth at all forms of subway stuff. “This project,” advises Workhorse, “will probably be like crack to the foamers.” Workhorse — not his real name, obviously — is one of my guides into the underworld. I could describe his appearance but as he looks highly particular it would make the NYPD’s job of rounding him up and clapping him in irons a little too easy. It suffices to say that in his world, in the vagabond art form known as street art, whose practitioners are used to dodging the law and shrouding their ID behind a nom de guerre, he is a significant figure.
He and PAC, a slightly younger and leaner street artist, have been toiling away at the Underbelly project for 18 months. Between the two of them they have made perhaps 75 visits to the site. This is to be the last. After tonight, their only connection to the place will be in the form of photographs and film. Both are jittery with tension. If they get through tonight, they will have successfully brought more than 100 artists to the site, undetected and unprosecuted. For a couple of slacker-dude outsider types, not obvious inheritors of the military-precision gene, it’s been one hell of an undertaking.
There have been a few scrapes, mind. Street artists — practitioners of what is also known as urban art — are used to working more or less alone under cover of darkness, but in terms of dodging arrest this has been in a different league. Not a word has squeaked out into a media environment where news goes viral in a nanosecond. Until now.
Neither Workhorse nor PAC is quite sure where they stand in the eyes of the law. They could easily face a bog-standard trespassing charge, but street artists are used to clambering over wire fencing and stealing onto private property. “The thing that we’re uncertain about,” says Workhorse, “is — with this being the subway, and the magnitude of the project — if they wanted to say we’re messing up the infrastructure and bring Homeland Security in and talk terrorism.”
Back in May, a US citizen, Faisal Shahzad, tried and failed to detonate a car in Times Square. Security alerts went off the chart and that week it was simply too risky to bring down Shepard Fairey, the internationally renowned street artist who designed the Barack Obama 2008 Hope campaign posters. “The concern,” adds PAC, “is that a tabloid paper paints it as if we could have built a nuclear bomb down here with that many visits, and they will have to make an example of us.”
It being a Sunday and the station not slap dab at the epicentre of Manhattan, the platform gradually empties. Workhorse turns and leads our party of four along the platform. I’m told to go second, 10 yards behind him. I follow him to the entry point and within yards I enter a world that most New Yorkers never see, or even know about.
The surface underfoot suddenly turns rough and damp. My torch picks out puddles among the loose cement. We clamber over various obstacles — details of what and how withheld — until we are in an empty space.
“So where’s the rest room?” I ask.
“You’re standing in it,” says Workhorse.
In the distance the beam catches a lurid flash of colour. It swerves onto another. Floor-to-ceiling images adorn distant walls PAC, who is carrying a powerful square-shaped multi-bulb floodlight, fires it up, hoists it onto his hip and directs it out front. And there, suddenly irradiated in the beam, is the ghost of a subway station.
All square pillars and lowering ceiling, it looks like something created by a latter-day Brunelleschi. The light collides with colonnades of grey struts stretching all the way back to a far wall.
I take in the spectral contours of the space: empty beds where railway tracks were never laid, access points where staircases were never built, hollow drops where escalators were never fitted. And platforms on which passengers never waited for trains.
But hold on, there in the distance the beam catches a lurid flash of colour. It swerves onto another.
Floor-to-ceiling images adorn distant walls, much like posters on subway platforms. Here, apparently, is artwork after outsize artwork. At a glance, I can see gawping heads, writhing figures, letter clusters in graffiti’s signature font, riotous splashes and creepy swooshes in attention-seeking hues.
I feel a sudden tingle of visceral amazement. This is genuinely astonishing. I can see only a tiny fraction of what’s here, covering every available wall space. This contemporary time capsule features 100 works of street art by artists from all over the world.
There is no Guggenheim Museum for a fugitive art form whose works are sprayed and pasted on public walls in the dead of night. Instead, all of a sudden, there is this: a renegade installation planted furtively under one of the busiest cities in the world. I have never seen anything like it. Nor has anyone else. And here’s the thing: nor will they. But why on earth would anyone create something on such a scale that nobody else will ever get to see?
It’s Workhorse who pipes up with an oral version of their manifesto. “In the beginning,” he says, “street art was something you did because you didn’t fit in anywhere else. The ‘don’t give a f***’ attitude was about doing it yourself. F*** the galleries! If they don’t like your work then put it on the f***ing street and ram it down their f***ing throats. But for the last few years urban art has been getting ridiculous. You could go out with some cute little character that you drew, or some quirky saying, and put it up everywhere for a few months, then do a gallery show and cash in on the sudden interest in urban art. It really was that easy for a while. Banksy pieces that were selling for $600 one year were suddenly selling for $100,000 a few years later. It was nuts.
“People were going out and literally sawing walls in half to steal Banksy pieces. Electrical panels were being ripped off leaving live wires exposed that had Shepard Fairey stencils on them. It was commercialism at its worst. Early in the street-art years, I relished the ability to feel like I was my own island. The Underbelly was our way of feeling like we were an island again. We finally had a space in the world that collectors couldn’t contaminate. A space that couldn’t be bought.”
Art, in other words, for art’s sake, but in 2010 a purist has to go the extra mile to escape from Mammon’s siren call. Hence a hundred of them flocking to this underground hideout where cellphones won’t trill and money can’t talk. Workhorse seems a benign type, but there’s no missing the punkish inner rage that fuels him. PAC, an even more hardline advocate of creative cleanliness, was all for not publicising the existence of Underbelly at all. “But we can’t just put in a year and a half and deny the fact that we did something like this,” he says. They also figure that it’ll work as a recruiting tool for future projects: they’re already got sites lined up under Paris and Las Vegas.
Many New Yorkers are unaware that the city’s subway is home to a considerable labyrinth of abandoned spaces that were once destined to become stations and, for whatever reason, never made it. Most are known only to a renegade band of urban explorers, people who stop at nothing to seek out the city’s desolate nooks and crannies.
It was one of these who introduced PAC to the station in 2005. For a couple of years he would sporadically visit. Then he met Workhorse — a theme of whose work is reclaiming abandoned spaces — while helping him to hang a show. The Underbelly project took on epic proportions as soon as they realised that they couldn’t possibly hope to cover the walls by themselves with a few friends. So they decided to put the word out in urban art’s clandestine community: they’d stop after a year, or when they reached 100 works, whichever came first.
We tried to make sure we had a true cross section of what’s going on, not just current favourites We walk along a series of platforms and ledges towards a small room off the far end where the first images were painted. PAC shines the light on a striking image of a two-tone, jolie laide face, orange and white, with seductively hooded eyes and buck teeth. Utterly arresting, it is by a well-known urban artist who cannot be named.
At that point they didn’t quite know how much labour they’d let themselves in for. But they quickly realised that, for such a huge undertaking, certain rules had to be enforced. Every artist would need escorting, and while more than one could come down on the same night, their guides would need to make a minimum of 60 visits each. So they imposed a time limit. Four hours to work.
No exiting for more materials. No coming back. The artists also had to pay their own expenses — including air travel — and generally subordinate their ego to the wider mission. Naturally there was no talk of remuneration.
“We said, ‘You have to do this out of interest and love for what we’re doing. This is not about you basically,’ ” says Workhorse. “We didn’t want to bring down people if their heads were too big and they wanted to be the main player. We didn’t tell them who else was involved. It would be easy to get someone in if we told them, ‘We have Swoon, Faile, Ron English, Revok and The London Police.’ We wanted people involved because they liked the project, because they liked to paint, and because they were tired of the way urban art was being commodified.”
Those are just some of the stellar urban artists who give the Underbelly project its artistic credibility. Ron English, the daddy among Underbelly’s artists, can shift his work above ground for up to $200,000. Faile, a Brooklyn collective, have exported their sly comic-book style to public wall spaces across the world. The London Police’s bubbly kinderart has been shown in galleries all over Europe. Revok’s swirly graphics cover acreages of public space from California to Japan. Swoon, a Brooklyn urban-art activist, made waves at last year’s Venice Biennale when, uninvited, she sailed a cityscape sculpture made out of trash down the Grand Canal at 3am.
For the record, Banksy was asked, but it was at a time when he was promoting his film Exit through the Gift Shop. “We didn’t have direct communication with him,” says Workhorse, “but we did talk through a mutual friend. He said, ‘Great project, love it, but I can’t risk going in the middle of the tour for this movie.’ ” So there you have it: the Underbelly project was too scary even for street art’s most daring adventurer.
The artists who came down were more or less self-selecting. “We tried to make sure we had a true cross section of what’s going on, not just current favourites: old-school guys, new-school guys, up-and-coming guys, and plenty of girls.”
Most names speak of withheld identities and covert operations: Specter, Demer, Aiko, Posterchild, Roa, Saber, Trusto Corp, Sinboy, Bigfoot, Flying Fortress, Elbow Toe, Imminent Disaster… They came from all over: Japan, Israel, Australia, France, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Brazil and Romania. Several British artists are represented, not only the Amsterdam-based The London Police, but also Lucy McLauchlan, Apish Angel, O.Two, SheOne, Boxi, Remi/Rough.
SheOne, a Londoner with more than 20 years on the clock as a graffiti artist, was one of the last in. “It’s been quite hard not to talk about,” he concedes when I call him, back in London. “But I’m going to be able to tell the story of going down into the tunnel for ever. There were some nerves. And a certain amount of adrenaline kicked in. You’ve got all these artists like Ron English and Faile working in high-end galleries and yet they’re still open to doing this kind of work. It’s never been done before. To have them all in one place is quite a coup.”
Remi/Rough got the call via the Australian street artist Stormie Mills after Workhorse heard about a project of his painting, a 1970s Scottish coastal tenement that had never been occupied.
Getting 20 artists together in a space can be an absolute nightmare, but to get 100 and allocate space is profound “For two weeks I was agreeing to go to New York and do something without having any idea what it was,” he says.
He was staggered by the organisation, which involved inspecting an online map of the site and precise instructions about how long he and Stormie Mills would be held on the platform before being taken in. “Getting 20 artists together in a space can be an absolute nightmare,” he marvels, “but to get 100 over a long period of time and allocate space is profound.”
The majority, though, were their fellow Americans — appropriately, given the origins of the modern urban art movement in 1970s New York, when graffiti artists started covering subway trains with their tags (graffiti argot for a signature or symbol).
In the 1980s the work of street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring (both of them dead by 1990) took the movement off the walls of Manhattan and into galleries, museums, international biennials and, above all, auction houses.
The Underbelly project is rooted in that early history. Among graffiti’s breakthrough generation was the fraternal duo Smith and Sane, who used to put up their tags all over the city. Their most ambitiously placed tag on Brooklyn Bridge made it into the New York Times and sparked a public outcry about defacing public buildings. The city pressed charges. Sane subsequently fell to his death from the same bridge, though whether it was a suicide or an accident was never established. Smith’s contribution to the Underbelly project is a huge piece that reads SANE. “The funniest part about it,” says PAC, “is that Smith nowadays works for the transportation system.”
For 2½ hours I take the tour, Workhorse and PAC walking me past each piece. They fall eclectically into the three main schools of “what’s happening upstairs”, as they put it: graffiti-style tagging, street art and urban installation.
Workhorse reserved a cinemascopic space for himself and used his time slot to create a minutely detailed, stencil-based image of himself in an empty subway carriage. “I just had the idea of this ghost train passing through the station for all of eternity, me sitting here,” he says.
PAC’s piece, done in a small, box-like space, plays cleverly on the damp atmosphere: an intoxicating trompe l’oeil of black-and-white rhomboids whose careful patterning has been disfigured by sliding drips of paint.
The site mostly comprises a series of parallel railway beds, all closed off at both ends. As we walk from one to another, there suddenly looms out of the darkness a table laid for dinner, with two chairs, two place settings, a candle, a bottle. And this is where I discover that I’m not quite the only outsider to have been down here. The piece is by an artist called Jeff Stark, known for carefully choreographing dinners for 40 in abandoned spaces around the city.
“We couldn’t bring down 40 people,” says PAC, “so I told him he could bring down two for a dinner date. He put out a call and they had to write an essay saying why they should be the people chosen. He didn’t tell them anything, just said, ‘You’re gonna go some place illegal and we’ll serve you dinner.’”
The winners were two young women who came along in 1920s attire, with pearls and heels. They had a tour while the artist set up, then sat down to a five-course meal. Like something off the Mary Celeste, the table is the only evidence that anyone ever dined in this most exclusive New York eaterie.
How long can this time capsule of urban art last? Time and humidity are already working away at the poster images fixed to the wall But mostly the artists came down in ones and twos and occasionally fours, donned their face masks and head torches and set to work.
It didn’t always go smoothly. At the end of one short night’s work, the Brooklyn collective Faile and the celebrated anti-corporate raider Ron English had both finished in good time.
“Just as we were packing up to leave,” PAC remembers, “I heard some noises, looked down on the platform, and workers were setting up to do serious track work. So we sat in the pitch black for four hours while these guys sawed steel and Ron English paced back and forth yelling and screaming about picking his kid up from soccer practice. It turned into the longest night imaginable.”
We are nearing the end of my guided tour when Workhorse pipes up: “So try to imagine if you come here and you have no idea where your orientation is, and you come upon this place and find that.” And he suddenly flicks a torch beam onto a small hooded figure in jeans crouching against the wall. I jump clean out of my skin. Turns out it’s a body sculpture made out of tape. I lean in close and note that the maquette face already has mould growing on it.
Which raises the question, how long can this time capsule of urban art last? Plainly there’s the fear that it will be disinterred and destroyed by law-enforcement officials sent down to investigate by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But time and humidity are already working away at the poster images fixed to the wall with organic wheat paste.
Our time is up. We are back where we started, at the exit point. PAC parks his flood-lamp at an angle on the floor for the final time and produces a tall bottle of warm beer, cracks it open and pours it into four plastic cups. The mission, stretching back over 18 months and involving 75 sorties, has been accomplished. We’ve still got to get out without being spotted, and this time they’re removing access to the site. So if anything goes wrong there will be no escape route. We’ll be done up like kippers. Workhorse is still visibly tense and not quite ready for a celebration. PAC is more reflective when I ask him how he feels to be leaving. “It’s time to seal it up,” he says, drawing on a valedictory cigarette. “Every time I walk over a subway grate and smell that air coming up I’ll remember this station.”
They toast their epic efforts in a demob-happy frenzy. They’re like schoolboys at the end of the summer term, wired and giggly with exhilaration. As they gather their stuff and make for the exit, PAC spots something. It’s a light fitting dangling from the ceiling. After the hundreds of dollars spent on batteries, they’ve found a source of electricity. The abandoned subway station, this vast vacant husk whose walls they have conspiratorially adorned, has played one last hilarious trick back on them at the death.
We clamber out much as we clambered in. This time they hurriedly destroy the means of egress. And then we exit as we entered, in single file, 10 yards apart. The platform is deserted. After a few minutes a train pulls in and we step on, travel one stop, get off, push through the barrier and saunter up a flight of stairs into the teeming broiling honking New York night. Nobody knows. Nobody up here knows.