Nowadays, graffiti is an art form that can be found in the collections of major museums and cultural institutions throughout the world, but back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was considered a symbol of urban blight and lawlessness in the city. In July 1985, mustached WPIX reporter Alec Roberts spoke to some New Yorkers and writers about the aerosol phenomenon that adorned subway cars — both inside and out — providing a snapshot of how it was perceived at the time. Here’s how the broadcast news outlet summed it up:
While regular train riders and homeowners called it “the most disgusting thing that New York City has,” others defended graffiti as a kind of art. However, facts both sides agreed that Mayor Ed Koch’s efforts to stop vandals from tagging the city’s underground tunnels had proven to be both costly and ineffective.
Apparently these costs exacted a mental as well as a monetary toll as well. “While the psychic costs of all this visual pollution is incalculable, its been estimated that New York City and New York State have spent over $150 million cleaning up graffiti,” explains Roberts. “And as you can see, they haven’t been very successful.” The segment includes an interview with SKI ONE, a writer who brazenly discusses how he steals spray paint.
The MTA eventually instituted a policy that would remove all painted trains from service, denying these underground artists the chance for their work to be seen. And it worked. The transit agency declared victory over outlaw art in 1989, when it put out a press release claiming that all its trains were now graffiti free.