In 2009, graffiti was at the height of its powers. Artists who had once risked heavy jail time for their craft were now receiving mainstream gallery representation. It was under these circumstances, at a big gallery show, that two New York City street artists who go by the names Workhorse and PAC were introduced. The encounter might have been forgotten if PAC hadn’t mentioned an abandoned subway station — the holy grail of graffiti spots — that he knew about.
Over the next 72 weeks, Workhorse and PAC invited 100 of the creators of the world’s most well-known street art down beneath the streets of New York into their makeshift gallery, dubbed the Underbelly Project. Each artist was given four hours to create a piece, on the condition that they swore to take the gallery’s location to the grave.
After the project was completed, the city caught wind of it through the work of the one journalist they allowed into the station. The MTA promptly sealed the space, leaving the artworks for future generations to unearth. Since then, PAC and Workhorse have gone on to create a second Underbelly in Paris. But a new book, “We Own the Night,” gives the public a glimpse into one of the best gallery exhibitions in New York City that few ever saw.
MetroFocus spoke via email to Workhorse and PAC about their experience with the Underbelly Project. The artists chose to collectively answer each question.
Q: What was appealing about doing work that was invisible from public view?
A: Often the most interesting works are those that are found in unusual places. The sheer improbability of anyone seeing the artwork becomes an integral part of the piece. I think that most people would welcome the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zone and create something in a unique place. We, and the artists involved, welcomed the chance to bury a time capsule of art that represented the current contemporary art scene. But more than all of that, it was just fun.
Click the images below for a glimpse into the Underbelly:
All photos courtesy of Rizzoli. Dates, names and descriptions were not available with the photos.
Q: Sooner or later somebody is going to find the Underbelly. Who do you hope that person is?
A: Wandering souls looking for answers and inspiration. Adventurous spirits who have a desire to explore the world they live in.
Q: The artist Revok, whose work is featured in the Underbelly as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was given a 180-day sentence last spring. Street art is simultaneously more commoditized and more criminalized than it’s ever been. What do you make of that?
A: Unauthorized public art is the lowest hanging fruit on the crime tree. It’s much easier to go after someone who is simply marking up a wall than it is to go after a systemic problem like white-collar crime. If you keep the streets clean it gives the illusion that everything else is okay. Generally, artists are unable to pay for a proper legal defense so they are easy to arrest, easy to prosecute and easy to hold up as an example of “how things are changing.” Slapping handcuffs on a paint slinger is much easier to do than revamping the publics relationship to its shared environment.
Q: What do you think New York City would look like if graffiti was legalized?
A: By its very definition graffiti is not graffiti unless it is illegal. There is no such thing as legal graffiti. However, if people were able to go around legally and slap images and words with immunity to the law, and without consideration of the community it rests in, that would be called…advertising.
Q: There’s something really beautiful about how everyone can see the space and the art through photos, yet they can’t engage with it physically. How does that change people’s experience of it?
A: I think Swoon put it best when she talks about the myth that developed around the project because of its inaccessibility. The mind travels to beautiful places without a referent and the Underbelly gives only clues to its full grandeur.
Q: You’re able to make money off this project because of this book. What does that mean to you?
A: This project started out as a passion and remains that. Most artist who were invited into the Underbelly project create work out of the love of the experience. The Underbelly promised a unique one for all. There were very few artists who turned down the opportunity because they thought it would not promote their career. Others turned us down because of scheduling conflicts. [Banksy was unable to participate because of the timing of the project.] This helped us confirm that many artists just enjoy the creative process — regardless of where the final product rests.
Counter to public perception, the Underbelly Project has made no net profit. In fact we are at a negative gain. Any money from the book or other sales went directly back into the Paris Underbelly, plus additional money from our own personal bank accounts. When you consider that for 72 weeks each of us individually put in a minimum of 10 hours a week seeing this project through to completion, the concept of “making money” is relative.
Q: Do either of you have any upcoming projects, or plan to collaborate again?
A: We have finished the second Underbelly in Paris with our Paris partner. We are currently scouting other locations on four different continents. We foresee the Underbelly Project continuing for years to come. We do not know when it will end, or what it would take for us to hang up our hats, but the idea, art, approach and passion are still as fresh as it was when we first began.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.