Subway graffiti meets its match in New York

There is a mock tombstone in front of the 240th Street subway maintenance shop in the Bronx, and it reads ``RIP Graffiti.'' Perhaps it indicates an end to this perennial problem besetting New York City subways. For years, subway cars have been covered inside and out with scribbles and drawings. And since 1984, the New York City Transit Authority has been attacking subway graffiti with a vengeance with its clean subway campaign, a pet project of transit chief David Gunn.

``He wanted to invite people to take the subway,'' Transit Authority spokesman Bob Previdi says. This would happen only if the trains appeared more appealing, he adds.

Of the system's 6,100 subway cars, 5,000 are now considered ``graffiti free,'' and by next year the authority expects to have eradicated all graffiti through its Clean Car Program, Mr. Previdi says.

``We feel it's been a tremendous success,'' Previdi says. ``There has been a decline in the number of incidents of graffiti painting'' and the cleaner trains have attracted more riders, he says. Since 1982, subway ridership has increased from 3.2 million to 3.7 million.

Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, an organization that has done surveys of graffiti and maintenance of the subway system since 1980, says the transit authority is behind the near disappearance of graffiti.

``I definitely credit the Transit Authority with a dramatic change,'' Mr. Russianoff says.

The graffiti problem is kept under control by making sure ``graffiti free'' trains never leave their home terminal with any marks, Previdi says. Once a train arrives at its terminal, some eight car maintainers check the train cars inside and out for marks and garbage and each car is mopped and scrubbed clean. There are more than 2,000 car maintainers throughout the subway system to do this job.

``There are always going to be graffiti hits,'' as the Transit Authority calls them, Previdi says, ``and kids punching out windows.'' The number of hits, however, has decreased significantly in the last few years, according to Al O'Leary, a spokesman for the New York City Transit Police Department.

Mr. O'Leary says the better cleaning methods have removed the incentive to paint the trains. In 1985 the number of graffiti and criminal-mischief arrests was 1,435. In 1986 it was down to 738, and only 215 arrests were made last year.

The cleaning process is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hours-a-day operation, which involves two categories of train cars - those that have been overhauled and new stainless-steel cars. It costs $1 million to buy a new car, but only $400,000 to $450,000 to overhaul it. The overhauled trains are painted red on the outside and tan inside and parts are rebuilt when necessary.

``People feel safer in a cleaner car,'' says Michael McKernan, superintendent of facilities and the car appearance program for the Northern Division.

``Graffiti is our top priority,'' says Billy Bruce, who has been cleaning train cars for two years. ``People pay a buck to get on them, why shouldn't they be clean? But people mess them up because they know we'll clean them.''

Currently transit workers are working without a contract, which expired March 31. The main issues in negotiations, according to Bob Wechsler, spokesman for the Transportation Workers Union national office, are wages and health benefits. George McDonald, director of safety at Local 100 of the TWU, says worker safety is also an issue. He says there are questions regarding hazardous work conditions for workers who have not been trained to use chemicals required for removing the graffiti. He charges that workers cleaning cars are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals, while driving subway cars through car washes. ``We take safety very seriously,'' counters Jared Lebow, a Transit Authority spokesman. He says workers dealing with harsh chemicals are thoroughly trained and wear protective clothing when necessary.

But some people say they believe graffiti is here to stay.

``I don't think the day will come when graffiti will disappear,'' says an artist who calls himself Vulcan. He began his graffiti career in the early '70s.

Vulcan says ``some of the money for cleaning should be put into something else for kids to do, maybe an art-scholarship program or work space.'' To the kids this is an art form, he says.

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