You Can’t Buff FREEDOM Out of the Freedom Tunnel, NYC’s Most Sacred Graffiti Spot

November 7, 2014 | Alexis Janine

If you know what you’re looking for, you can still find the original murals by Chris FREEDOM Pape in the Amtrak tunnel under Riverside Park 25 years after the famous graffiti artist painted them. In a city where almost nothing lasts — let alone graffiti/street art — it’s incredible that they are still intact.

As the story goes, the once abandoned train tunnel, known as the “Freedom Tunnel,” got its name from Chris FREEDOM Pape, the graffiti writer who used to paint massive murals. But according to Moses Gate, author of Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration, Pape told him that it was graffiti legend SMITH who named the spot: “SMITH had painted ‘Freedom Tunnel’ outside the entrain and it just caught on.” The rest is history.

I came across eight of FREEDOM’s murals when I spent my Sunday walking up the West Side, from 72nd to 125th Street, taking the tunnel instead of the bike path running adjacent to the river just outside. Immediately, I found a gold mine. The narrow three mile-stretch offers some of the best graffiti this city has to offer. It’s so beautiful that after a while, you’ll forget you’re looking at graffiti and see it as fine art, with patches of light rushing in through grates. The effect is reminiscent of spotlighting at galleries.

The deeper I walked into the tunnel, the better it got, until I came upon a painted wall that looked extra weathered — Pape’s, I realized in disbelief. That first mural was the largest in scale, titled “The Third of May, 1992,” a collaborative masterpiece between FREEDOM and SMITH. It is a reference to The Third of May, 1808 by the late Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Goya’s painting depicts the massacre of the Spanish during Napoleon’s conquest of Spain in 1800s. SMITH and FREEDOM’s alludes to the masterpiece, making a scathing statement about Amtrak bulldozing New York’s homeless out of their makeshift homes along the tunnel in the ’90s. Around 2010, “The Third of May, 1992” suffered extensive water damage from a leak above the tunnel, resulting in its present appearance. 

I found FREEDOM remakes of other classical works: A painted charcoal-style sketch of the bust of Venus de Milo adjacent to the torso of Michelangelo’s David, and a clock draped above the ledge of the tunnel walls remodeled after Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory. There were portraits of famous men throughout history, too: A baseball card portrait of Ted Williams, profiles of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. There was even a self portrait of FREEDOM himself; a torso with hands shoved in the pockets of a fleece collared coat with a spray can for a head. 
Aside from FREEDOM’s self portrait, the “Buy American Mural,” also known as “The Coca Cola Mural,” is possibly the most famous in the tunnel. It was the last mural he painted in the tunnel, after Amtrak had displaced the population. It’s a commentary about capitalism, inequality, and the indifference toward the homeless population that had suffered as a result of Amtrak’s eviction. Legend has it that Amtrak painted over this mural when the buff swept through the tunnels in the early 2000s because it generated so much traffic between photographers and urban explorers. Only one panel of this comic-strip style mural remains, and sadly, it’s none of the controversial imagery — just the fading Coca Cola logo. It’s now accompanied by a profile of Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for the construction of the tunnel, painted by street artist Gaia. 

These works have lasted against generations of new graffiti writers and explorers and vandal squad, remaining largely untouched and respected. After close to thirty years, that speaks volumes about FREEDOM and his incredible legacy.

(Photos: Alexis Janine/ANIMALNewYork)