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New York Folklore Vol. 17. Nos. 1-2, Winter-Spring 1991
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Vol. 17, Nos. 1-2, 1991

by Ivor Miller

Beginning in the late 1960s, there has grown in New York City a movement of young painters, mostly male, who paint their works on the city’s subways. They call themselves “painters,” “aerosol artists,” or “writers;” they are called by the city government “vandals” and “graffiti artists.” The core attitude underlying their work is a mixture of adventure seeking, rebelliousness and self affirmation through creativity. The original writers seem to have been inspired by the social protest movements of the 1960s, namely Latin Power, Black Power, and the civil rights movement. With the invention of the spray can, and the influence of psychedelic posters and colorful advertising, these inner city youths made their private visions public.

I have located and interviewed some of the most committed and creative of these writers, several of whom have exhibited their work in European galleries. Through listening to their testimonies, I became aware of some common themes: the heroism and risk taking that is intrinsic to being a successful writer, the magnetic attraction to and intimate knowledge of the trains, and a stance of rebelliousness against a society which exploits the inner city poor. These themes have been explored to some extent in other works (e.g., Mailer 1974; Castleman 1982; Cooper and Chalfant 1984), yet no author has presented the works of writers in historical perspective. Subway painting is presented as a completely new phenomenon, without precedent or roots.

While writers come from many if not all ethnic groups living in New York City, it is clear that the working class Black and Latin neighborhoods of upper Manhattan and the South Bronx have produced many writers who have contributed significantly to the style and content of subway paintings. The aim of this paper is to examine ways in which these African American and Afro-Caribbean writers and their ancestors have related to trains as symbols and metaphors. As we will see, these ancestors worshipped gods of iron; they helped build the railways of this country; they later worked as Pullman porters; and they created work songs, blues songs and poetry using the train as a metaphor for their own aspirations. While the symbol of train pervades the culture of the United States as a whole, I will concentrate here on the African-American tradition.

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