Beneath The Streets: The Hidden Relics of New York’s Subway System is a new book out by JURNE and Matt Litwack that explores New York’s underground through the artistic lens of a graffiti writer. We caught a couple moments of the co-authors time to find out more about the book and life below the city that never sleeps.
How did the idea for Beneath the Streets come about?
Matt Litwack: During my high school days, I would explore the NYC subway tunnels. I became fascinated with the graffiti, the history, and the general danger of the underground. JURNE and I wanted to create a book that was able to examine the subway system from a sociological, historical, and artistic perspective. We wanted people to be able to see what it’s like for graffiti artists to explore these environments.
Jurne: We’ve been drawn to these hidden or tucked-away city environments for nearly 2 decades, exploring and painting them. The New York City subway tunnel system is one of the most expansive and oldest public transportation systems in the world. With that comes a lot of history, and a lot of potential stories to tell about experiences inside the subway tunnels. There’s a tradition of folklore or story telling that goes hand in hand with graffiti writing. Capturing this story of the New York city subway tunnels, exploration, and graffiti writing inside them was something that Matt and I talked about doing for a long time.
Can you describe your first journey underground into the subway tunnels?
Jurne: I remember stepping off the platform into the dark tunnel, and feeling like I was crossing a threshold into a dangerous place, with dim red light illuminating the 3rd rail, and the slow hiss of air coming from pipes over head. It was pretty terrifying. I was immediately fascinated.
Matt Litwack: The first time I ventured underground was with a much older, established and experienced individual. I was fortunate to have someone with such knowledge show me the ropes. Regardless, I was still terrified and didn’t know what to expect or what I might encounter.
Did you notice any differences in the tunnels and environment depending on which borough you were in?
Matt Litwack: Oh yeah. Different train lines have an entirely different feel from one another. The smell in the air, the amount of soot and dirt on the tunnel walls, they all vary from line to line. Even the way that the rocks are laid on the track-bed, or the ceiling is cut. Nothing is really uniform within the transit system. Its pretty cool.
What were some of the oldest tags you found?
Matt Litwack: Well, I have seen worker graffiti from the 1950’s, but in terms of traditional tags, I think there’s a VINNY tag in the book that’s got to be from like 1971, and a BASE tag from 1973. There’s also a really great IZ THE WIZ tag from 1976, with sneaky OE3 and P13 tags next to it. I just love that photo.
Who is the most prolific writer underground?
Matt Litwack: Hands down I would say REVS. Nobody even really comes close. SANE and SMITH certainly had a very systematic approach to painting an excessive amount of graffiti underground, but what REVS did down there is pretty epic.
Were you able to document all of REVS’s diaries?
Matt Litwack: The book features a nice amount of his diary entries, as well as pages written by other artists that REVS ventured into the tunnels with. I never heard of anyone other than REVS having documented all of them.
Did you stumble upon any strange tunnels, hidden platforms, or any relics like that?
Jurne: There are all sorts of unused stairwells, stints of track, and vacant rooms scattered throughout the New York subway tunnel network. Because the New York City subway system was built in stages, there are parts of it that were constructed for use, and then either abandoned, or modified, leaving pockets of unused infrastructure. Abandoned subway stations are the most visible of these: many of the platforms of these ghost stations can be seen briefly from the window of a moving train.
Any hairy moments to speak of?
Jurne: No comment
Matt Litwack: I plead the 5th.
Do you have any plans to document any other subway systems?
Matt Litwack: Personally, I would like to use this project as a catalyst to document other cultural oddities that may be unknown to the general public. I think it would be really cool to continue to mesh photography with the social sciences, giving insight to all sorts of things deemed off limits.
Jurne: Yes, we have some new projects in mind.
The book launch for Beneath the Streets takes place this Thursday, July 10th from 7-9pm at Powerhouse Arena bookstore in DUMBO, Brooklyn (37 Main Street 11201)