The Underbelly Project: Hidden Graffiti

What's the point of painting huge murals underground in complete darkness? To talk about it.

— By | November 12, 2010

The abandoned subway platform of the Underbelly Project (courtesy NY Times)

Right now, somewhere underneath Manhattan in an abandoned subway station, is a hidden art project consisting of over a hundred murals painted by graffiti artists on dusty, moldy, concrete walls. PAC and Workhorse, two prolific NY vandals, discovered the hidden tunnel a few years back and decided to invite other graffiti adventurers to paint. And they painted, in the indigo dark, near the crack of dawn, all while avoiding the authorities. The discarded tunnel, an unfinished space abandoned nearly 100 years ago, provided a sphere of neutrality, removed from the now fairly marketed and predictable culture of street art on the city’s visible surface.

I was surprised, like many, to learn about the project’s existence from a NY Times article written by Jasper Rees on Underbelly’s unlikely origins. But be forewarned fellow explorer of the unearthly nether-regions beneath the crust of everyday humanity! Since the article was published, at least a couple urban explorers have purportedly been arrested in New York’s subway tunnels, searching for the mysterious, rhizomatic mural rooms. Why, then, did PAC and Workhorse want to let us know about the project? What’s the point of producing a huge gallery of underground (this time indeed really subterranean) street art, removed from the public eye, and then let the public know that it exists somewhere just beyond its grasp? Why would they even create an homepage for it? The story seems a bit maddening, if not, if you would allow me the indulgence, the least bit cruel.

The Underbelly Project’s gesture is nothing new. Graffiti writers have always expressed a somewhat contradictory relationship towards audience. On the one hand, writers make themselves known to the public through the painting of a pseudonym on the wall. A stylized signature. On the other hand, the only audience who recognizes the name as referring to an actual person is the small community of writers who participate in the art practice. No one else knows who they are, and most don’t care.

The first famous — that is, newspaper famous — graffiti artist was Taki 183. The NY Times also published an article on him, “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” but still, most of everyone didn’t know who he was even after reading the article. They had a name, a hint, a temptation, perhaps a myth.

The tension between becoming known and unknown through graffiti is expressed quite clearly in a scene from the now classic hip-hop documentary Style Wars where a 17-year-old Skeme argues with his mother over the importance of his nom de plume going all-city. After all, aren’t you more unknown, when more people raise the question: Who is this person?

Graffiti writers thus become pseudonymous by virtue of their art of signature. They are at home in pure state of purgatory, made at once present to a public audience and yet uncannily absent. The graffiti signature is marked, for those not initiated into the small graffiti community, by a spectral absence, a sense of lost presence. It’s not the death of the author, but rather the invisibility of the author, and thus the imaginary fabrication of the signature’s distanced origins, which underpins the significance — the utterly ghostly nature — of graffiti authorship.

I call effectively for research into the hauntology of graffiti. Music bloggers take note. Derrida spins in his grave?

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