An MTA train featuring graffiti (photo by Anthony Catalono via Flickr)

The number of subway graffiti artworks in New York City is climbing steadily after taking a significant dip in the last few years, according to reports by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Since the beginning of 2022, the agency has reported 209 incidents of graffiti on subways in the city, set to beat a total of 300 in 2021. There were only 208 and 297 in 2020 and 2019, respectively. Current numbers are on track to reach 2018’s relative high of 443 incidents.

“I can only speculate that after having experienced lockdowns thanks to the pandemic and with travel restrictions having recently been lifted worldwide, writers are eager to make up for lost time,” street art photographer and documentarian Luna Park told Hyperallergic.

An Instagram post by Julien Blanc, known as Jibone (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Some local graffiti artists have attributed the spike to the work of tourists — not NYC residents. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has said the same thing, telling the City that trains in layup areas are primarily tagged by “individuals living overseas.”

“As restrictions on international travel have lifted, we have seen an increase in layup graffiti incidents,” NYPD Lieutenant Jessica McRorie said. Last month, French artists Julien Blanc and Pierre Audebert were killed while graffitiing a Brooklyn subway car in a well-known 1970s and ’80s tagging spot.

Modern-day graffiti came out of Philadelphia in the 1960s, arrived in New York in the early 1970s, and became extremely popular when it merged with the new hip-hop culture that grew out of the Bronx.

In 1972, NYC Mayor John Lindsay declared a war on graffiti, and in 1984, the new head of the MTA implemented an extreme crackdown: razor wire fences and attack dogs around train yards as well as a cleaning policy in which tagged trains were immediately taken out of circulation. By 1989, the city had spent $300 million preventing and cleaning subway graffiti.

Graffiti inside a subway station tunnel in Elmhurst, Queens (via Wikimedia Commons)

Books and museum exhibitions have honored and documented the subway graffiti tradition, but the MTA still holds a hard line.

The agency “works closely with the NYPD to investigate any acts of vandalism,” according to an MTA statement sent to Hyperallergic, and it continues to remove and clean tagged trains before riders can use them again.

The MTA plans to spend over $1 million on graffiti removal and prevention in 2022 (which it also spent in 2020 and 2021). By comparison, the MTA spent a little over $130,000 in 2016 and slightly over $600,000 in 2018. “These acts are costly to the MTA and taxpayers, and often extremely dangerous,” Sean Butler, a spokesperson for the agency, told the City.

“This was a fairly effective deterrent practice well before the ‘Pics or It Didn’t Happen’ era,” Park said. “But I wonder how effective it really is in the age of digital photography. Personally, I find the MTA’s current practice of wrapping whole cars — or even whole trains — in paid advertising far more abhorrent.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.