Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Travel Back To 1981 New York With These Photos Of A Gritty, Graffiti-Covered Subway

Photographer Christopher Morris tells Co.Create about shooting New York subways in 1981, when things were gritty and trains were covered with graffiti and rust.

  • 01 /20
  • 02 /20
  • 03 /20
  • 04 /20
  • 05 /20
  • 06 /20
  • 07 /20
  • 08 /20
  • 09 /20
  • 10 /20
  • 11 /20
  • 12 /20
  • 13 /20
  • 14 /20
  • 15 /20
  • 16 /20
  • 17 /20
  • 18 /20
  • 19 /20
  • 20 /20

The city of New York is constantly evolving. Times Square may be a sensory-assaulting Disneyworld of advertising today, but, as any veteran will lament, it was once a seedy mecca of sex shops and unbridled hedonism. The city was a much more dangerous place. And it was amazing!

A newly emerged series of vintage photos from Christopher Morris takes a close look at one particular era and facet of that grittier NYC: the subways in 1981.

"I had just moved to New York City," says Morris, "and I became fascinated with the total urban decay that was the underground subway of New York."

You may recognize the New York depicted in these photos if you were there at the time—or if you’ve just seen the 1979 movie Warriors a ton of times—but if not, these photos might come as a surprise. The crisp, clean, Dr. Zizmor-sponsored subways of today were preceded by metal tubes almost completely covered by graffiti. Riding the subway during these times was actually considered a perilous undertaking (Morris sometimes rode along with the Guardian Angels, the red-bereted anti-crime group. You can spot them in the photos). Morris had taken to documenting the state of the subway back in 1981 and set the photos aside. It was only after coming across an article on graffiti artist Tracy 168 recently—someone with whom he had spent some time back then—which sent him combing back through his personal archive. As a result, he unearthed a time capsule’s worth of historical images of a bygone era.

The photos reveal just as much about the trains themselves as they do the people who rode them. The poofy hair and trenchcoat-heavy fashions that typify the era are present and accounted for. The work of anonymous graffiti-artists is visible alongside work from Keith Haring. And the rusted exteriors of the train can be interpreted as a comment from a people who seem to have felt they’d lost the war on clean subways and just gave up. Of course, that war continued to rage on over the years, leading to the comparatively sanitized commuting atmosphere we have today.

"Late '80s, early '90s—the city had pretty much eliminated the graffiti problem," Morris says. "The graffiti tagging inside the trains was for sure out of control. But the exterior train murals are truly brilliant, something that made the platforms come alive when they would roll into the station."

Have a look through images of those murals and more of Morris's photos in the slides above.