The Underbelly Project: Art underground and what I saw

October 31st, 2010 | By | 23 Comments »

This summer, I sat in a massive pitch-black room and muttered “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit…” over and over again. I couldn’t stop repeating “Holy shit” for maybe for five minutes. I’d been anticipating this moment for nearly a year. I was somewhere underneath New York City. I was waiting to be shown The Underbelly Project. Technically, I was there to take photos, but really I didn’t care at all if images came out or not. Really, I just wanted to see firsthand what was going on 4-stories below the streets of New York City.

Revok and Ceaze. That light comes from the lights that were set up temporarily for an artist who was painting that night.

Imagine Cans Festival, FAME Festival or Primary Flight: Some of street art and graffiti’s best artists all painting one spot. That’s kind of like The Underbelly Project. Except that The Underbelly Project took place in complete secrecy, in a mysterious location and without any authorization. Over the past year, The Underbelly Project has brought more than 100 artists to an abandoned and half-finished New York City subway station. Each artist was given one night to paint something.

Know Hope had this entire room to himself. What was this room meant to be? An elevator shaft? An office? I have no idea.

Workhorse and PAC, the project’s organizers, have put countless hours into their ghost subway station, and now they’re finally ready to unveil it to the world, sort of (more on that later). So I guess that’s why I was in that dark room, sitting in silence, waiting for them to give me a flashlight. I’m still not sure why I’d been extended the invitation to see the station firsthand, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity. The Underbelly Project is going to be part of street art history.

Surge, Stormie Mills, Remi/Rough and Gaia

Eventually, Workhorse and PAC came over to where I was sitting and lent me a flashlight. I stood up, already coated in dust and probably dirtier than I’ve ever been, and got a full tour of the station. I’m not somebody who is good at estimating the size of a space, but The Underbelly Project took place in a space that was meant to be a subway station, so I guess it was the size of a subway station with a few tracks. The station is like a concrete cavern: random holes who-knows how deep into the ground, dust thick like a layer of dirt, leaky ceilings and hidden rooms. Except the whole station is covered in art. Think of FAME Festival’s abandoned monastery transplanted to beneath New York City. I’m not an urban explorer, so I had no idea that there are abandoned subway stations throughout New York, but The Underbelly Project seems like just about the best possible use of one.

Of course, having been down there myself, I’m going to be prone to hyperbole. Even at it’s simplest, even if The Underbelly Project is “just another mural project,” it’s a story that the artists can tell for years, and it may even be evidence that street art isn’t so far gone and corporate as some people have suggested.

Swoon and Imminent Disaster. Disaster's piece is stunning beyond belief and fits the space so perfectly.

The list of artists who painted for The Underbelly Project goes on and on, but here are just a few:

Swoon

Gaia

Know Hope

Revok

Roa

Dan Witz

Jeff Soto

Faile

Mark Jenkins

Elbow-toe

TrustoCorp

Mark Jenkins and Con. This is at the end of a long and dark tunnel that, at the time, was not otherwise painted.

On my visit, The Underbelly Project wasn’t finished. In fact, somebody was painting there that night. Nonetheless, the space was already substantially painted and postered. I spent that night wandering around the tunnels, taking photos and getting lost (and also scared – Damn you Mark Jenkins! You can’t put a sculpture like that at the end of a darkened hall. I thought it was a person!).

TrustoCorp

And what now? The walls have all been painted and the artists have moved on to new projects. When the last artist finished painting the last wall, Workhorse and PAC made access to The Underbelly Project nearly impossible by removing the entrance. Even if any of us wanted to go back (and I do), even if we could remember how to get there (and I don’t), we can’t. Nobody can. For now, The Underbelly Project has become a time capsule of street art, somewhere in the depths of New York City.

Meggs

Brad Downey once explained to me why he thought Damien Hirst’s diamond skull is interesting. It had something to do with what people would think of the skull in 1000 years, when its original meaning has been lost to time. That’s when the skull is going to become a true icon and object with immense power. In some ways, The Underbelly Project is like Hirst’s skull, without the price tag. One day, decades from now hopefully, somebody may rediscover that old subway station and have no idea what they’re looking at. Hopefully, they’ll just feel that it’s something incredibly special.

Dan Witz. This was the first time I'd seen his street art in person. It's the perfect setting for Dan's Dark Doings series.

Here are some more images from The Underbelly Project, and expect more over the coming days on Vandalog and around the blogosphere… Or you can pay £1 to read an in-depth article about it in today’s Sunday Times.

Stash (well, part of his piece). This is another room like Know Hope's area.

Swoon and Lister

L'Atlas, Mr Di Maggio, 1010, Paper Twins, Bigfoot, Control/Jice. Photo by Workhorse

Faile. Photo by PAC

Skewville, PAC, SheOne, Revok/Ceaze. Photo by PAC

Photos by RJ Rushmore, Workhorse and PAC


Category: Art News, Featured Posts, Festivals, Photos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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  • http://www.ukstreetart.co.uk Mark

    Great article RJ!

  • http://vna.com George

    This is a pretty amazing project with such great artists involved… I just dont quite get it. It all feels a bit like “we did this amazing thing and showed a bunch of journalists and bloggers and now no one will ever be able to see it in real life ever again”

    It would have sat a lot better with me if only one photographer was allowed down there and then they held a big photographic exhibiton to show the artworks or something like that.

    Still cool though… I just dont get it.

  • Monday, the best day of the week.

    It’s disingenuous for the organizers of this performance piece Workhorse and PAC to say they want no one to know about it, and keep it secret and then call the NY Times .

    Boys you need to get your head around the idea that art can be created for yourself, like a tree does make noise and fall in the woods even when no one hears it.

    Don’t act all coy about the project then invite the Times to cover your performance.

  • Ludvig

    Wow RJ. You lucky man!

    Hope that you’re good bro. Let me know when you’re back around this way.

  • Emma

    there was a great article about this in the sunday times magazine…the online version has an exclusive video and great gallery too…amazing!

    http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/magazine/article431859.ece

  • http://blog.vandalog.com RJ

    Oh and I should note that because I don’t want to get anybody in trouble and I don’t want people to get hurt, any comments speculating on the location or the identity of participants will be deleted immediately. That should go without saying (particularly about identities), but I’m saying it anyway.

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  • Dave the Chimp

    I like the idea of things that no one will ever see, unless by some accident they are stumbled across. I like to make work in places people hardly go, and I like to also not leave my name so that the thing that is left is a mystery. That is interesting. I like to discover mysteries.

    But we all know this place exists now, so it isn’t a mystery, and even if it’s not discovered for another 50 years it still won’t be a mystery as people only need to look at newspaper records. Kind of spoils the project for me. We see a few photos on the internet, rather than get the experience of exploring. And? What’s the point? Why didn’t they just make it, lock it up, and leave it to be discovered? By inviting newspapers and bloggers it just becomes another project to get fame with.

    My other issue is that none of the work I’ve seen here looks all that good. It seems like such a massive opportunity to create something, and then we get nothing really special. There’s good artist here, but I don’t see good pieces. I see average pieces. Maybe the photos I’ve seen are just not very good. Maybe it’s to difficult to make something good in the dark? Maybe one night isn’t enough time? Who knows.

    I think I would have prefered not to have seen anything. Just heard through the grapevine that this place exists… an urban legend…

    I wonder how long the work will last, unexposed to the elements? I’ll come back in 50 years time, once I’ve forgotten about it. hope you’ll have another report then.

  • tuck

    currently tens of thousands of brooklyn hipsters are seeking out this show, so don’t worry about it. give it another 72 hours and the exactly location will be on google maps…

  • http://blog.vandalog.com RJ

    Damn. That sucks. Well it was nice while it lasted.

  • Reice

    Dude you are seriously so lucky for getting to see that in person. I imagine the trip down there is equally (if not even more) exciting than the art itself!

    People saying that making a big secret project and then telling bloggers and journalists is all for the fame – thats exactly what it is…and it makes complete sense doesn’t it?

    If you spent over a year painting something incredible with a big group of friends of yours, and it turned out pretty nice, wouldn’t you want to show the world?

    The fact that the guys hid the entrance and are trying to leave this incredible idea to disappear into the past is pretty commendable in my opinion. Street art is a huge, money making industry nowadays; the two artists that set this up could be charging extortionate amounts to big street art spenders and making a small killing… although difficult because of the location, I’m sure its possible.

    I think this idea deserves huge amounts of respect, and if they kept it secret, we’d never have witnessed something as amazing as this!

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  • Groncho

    Just got back, All the art was tagged over by angry locals already.

    When were these photos taken?

  • http://www.allcitynewyork.com Moe

    You went now? That’s pretty ballsy. I cannot imagine VS is doing anything other than hanging out there waiting for people to try head in.

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  • Mat Troy

    just there 2 hours ago with cops and transit
    some of the best work ive seen in a while
    to bad some haters tagged over everything
    got cellphone pix gonna post on Flicker
    want to go back with a real camera

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  • Miss Monday

    I’m a native New Yorker, a crazy teen raised in the city and there is nothing that is a secret for some outside hipster to find.
    You are decades too late!

    To a NY teen from the 1970′s there is not one secret place left in the transit system or city!
    Everything is known, because our father and grand father worked int eh transit system so we knew about the undiscovered places or we discovered them our self.

    Someone from the Midwest moves here after art college and thinks they discovered a secert passage into a forgotten defunct unfinished tracks.

    By others tagging the work shows them what a joke they are.

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