Forget the streets: If you want to find some of New York’s best graffiti art, you have to dig a little deeper. While much of the city’s graffiti has been washed away, some of the more provocative tags still exist miles beneath the sidewalks, in nooks and crannies invisible to the pedestrian eye.
I discovered these spray-painted secrets on a recent trip to the Freedom Tunnel, a legend among street art aficionados and underground urban explorers alike. Located beneath Riverside Park, the tunnel is a visual feast of graffiti that bears witness to a forgotten chapter in New York City history. Built in the 1930’s by Robert Moses and abandoned soon after, the tunnel became a haven for homeless people who set up camp in the underground refuge. Unfortunately, the story ends all too predictably: in 1991 Amtrak bulldozed the shantytown and reopened the tunnel for use. Further research brings up little on what actually happened to the hundreds evicted from the tunnel; suffice to say they became silent casualties of a war brought against the city’s outcasts.
Yet their voices are represented by the plethora of graffiti artists who also came to the tunnel to tag its walls. Painter and street artist Chris “Freedom” Pape, who the tunnel is named after, created some of his most notable works in this subterranean gallery, many of which pay homage the events of 1991. His pieces reference everything from Michelangelo to Norman Rockwell and are enough to make any art history student pass out from excitement. Although I didn’t make it to Pape’s sketch of the Venus de Milo (and David’s torso with giant penis) or his series of hands copied from the Sistine Chapel, I did stumble across his rendition of Francisco de Goya’sThe Third of May. Originally painted by Goya in 1814, the work portrays the French army’s massacre of Spanish dissenters during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808. It’s impossible not to see the connection between Goya’s political masterpiece and the Freedom Tunnel’s legacy of persecution. Pape’s remake might be kitsch, but his gesture also situates the destruction of the tunnel’s shantytown within a larger discourse of social injustice and demands it be included in the dominant historical narrative.
Pape’s other tunnel works are much more explicit in their indictment of American values. In his “Coca-Cola Mural” he juxtaposes the weathered face of a homeless man, a la Walker Evans, with a cartoon of the quintessential American 1950’s family in their shiny automobile, a la Rockwell. Sandwiched in between is a Coca-Cola ad that drives home the message of capitalism inequality and indifference towards the common man.
While I’d encourage anyone to take a visit to the Freedom Tunnel to see Pape’s work and other graffiti masterpieces first hand, be warned that it’s not your typical gallery-hopping affair. The tunnel is still used by Amtrak, so you must stay alert in case a train comes shooting by. A few homeless people continue to dwell in the tunnel as well, although my fellow explorers and I didn’t cross paths with anyone during our stay. Our biggest challenge was just getting into the tunnel. After failing to find an easy access point to the entrance, we were forced to slide down the steep railing of dirt and trees that separates Riverside Drive from the West Side Highway and endured some minor bruises along the way.
Once inside the Freedom Tunnel though, you forget all about the dangers that might lurk in the shadows (at least until you hear the first train coming). It’s a shock to the senses to dive from the bustling city streets into a wasteland where you feel like the only person left on earth. Air vents let in giant columns of sunlight that also give the tunnel a holy aura. Much of the graffiti is strategically placed beneath these shafts, which provide lighting that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any gallery at street-level.
My trip to the tunnel in the dead of winter was cut short by the fading afternoon light that made it hard to find our way out. But now that summer’s here, I think another visit is in order. As a native New Yorker, I’ve often lusted for a taste of the old city and the Freedom Tunnel offers just that, plus the chance to uncover a piece of history that has long been buried underground.
If you’d prefer to enjoy the tunnel from above ground, check out this great tour led by a kid whose passion and knowledge of the tunnel far exceeds his years. He’s a future street artist in the making!