Graffiti: NY Subways Brought 'Art to the People,' LA Trains Bring 'People to the Art'

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At a Departures StoryShare event, Raul "Frame" Gamboa talks about early graffiti art along the L.A. River | Listen to more StoryShares here

This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The series has extensively profiled art in the city and the L.A. River.

The intent of early graffiti artists leaving their mark on New York's subway cars was simple: have your name be seen. The same idea may be undergoing a different application via Los Angeles transportation--except it is not about painting subway and trains cars, it is about what can be seen from their windows.

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This 44-second video shot from a Metrolink commuter train shows graffiti on retaining walls (bottom of the screen), bridges and buildings.

Depending on which side of the debate you are on, you can consider this the unfortunate chance to witness the aftermath of destructive vandalism in an urban core, or a pre-show of graffiti art on your way into Los Angeles to attend "Art in the Streets" at MOCA.

The exhibition hints at the scale of the work that once appeared on subway trains in Manhattan until 1989, when the Metropolitian Transit Authority's 5-year anti-graffiti program to clean up its subway cars ended.


That year marked the death knell to graffiti's early beginnings, according to MOCA's "Art in the Streets" historical timeline. The street system that allowed names to travel in a collective installation through an interborough delivery system was over.

If you lean toward graffiti being a pure art form, call it the end of the subway movement of graf art.

That scale of graffiti can only be seen in photographs. At MOCA, on space dedicated to photographer and documentarian Henry Chalfant, one corner of the Geffen has over 800 of his images of subway cars lathered with names. (Chalfant's years of chasing names becomes an art installation more interesting than the art itself.)

The Los Angeles edition of graffiti voyeurism may never replace the Manhattan's system to bring art to a district, but the virtual gallery does offer a glimpse of current typographic trends.


This video, uploaded in July 2010, from +Metro shows graffiti art along the L.A. river seen from a train. Near the end (2:50), the aggressive whitewashing can be seen. Today, the graffiti is gone.

Metrolink's San Bernardino and Inland Empire/Orange County Line travels in and out of Union Station along the Los Angeles River, then bends toward the section of the city with industrial warehouses. Though much of the graffiti along the riverbanks is now gone, on the back of warehouses and along retaining walls, graffiti tags can be seen from the windows while riding comfortably at 40 to 50 miles per hour.

While it was noted here that MOCA's exhibition was more of a study of an urban artist phenomena, this rail-bound outdoor gallery gives you a chance to accept the challenge to consider graffiti an art form.

Twitter: @KCETdepartures
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About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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New York people have regretted the first and last mural and all in between. Remember that seeing it the first time is the only good time- a thousand days of that same picture will make you hate somebody- anybody. The murals robbed New York of its vitality by going to anger and boredom.