Art Underground: A Guide to Art in the Subways

Michelle Michalos |

While there are an abundance of museums around the city hosting every kind of art imaginable, New Yorkers can’t deny that some of the most interesting art is all around them, freely displayed, on their daily commutes. Here, MetroFocus highlights some of the programs and artists that have helped transform the subway system over the years from a place of urban blight into a hub of creativity.

“Treasures of New York: Art Underground,” hosted by Paula Zahn, explores MTA Arts for Transit’s initiative to bring permanent art to the subway and commuter railroads. Premieres Wednesday, June 27 at 7 p.m. on WLIW21 and Thursday, July 5 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Below we draw attention to just some of the art works, literature and music that can provide welcome distraction and inspiration during your subway wait or trip. For additional information about the MTA Arts for Transit’s collection, visit NYC-ARTS and Treasures of New York.


Arts for Transit App

Not sure where to find a certain artwork in the subway? MTA Arts for Transit has developed a free app with artwork listed by train line or artist name, with turn-by-turn directions, photos and podcasts, available for iPhone and Android.

Poetry in Motion

Started in 1992, MTA Arts for Transit’s Poetry in Motion program has returned to subway cars after a four-year absence. Presented in collaboration with the Poetry Society of America, each poem is accompanied by art elements from permanent works in the Arts for Transit program.

"Smarter Greener Better" (2011), by artists Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell, depicts a sustainable city blooming, with a subway at its center. Photo courtesy of MTA Arts for Transit.

Poster Program

MTA Arts for Transit has utilized unused advertising spaces for art at subway stations across the city with its Poster Program, which began in 1991. Similarly, the Art Card Program places art in subway cars, with prints, illustrations, and other works by visual artists.

Music Under New York

Since 1985, Music Under New York has brought quality music to commuters, with over 350 soloists and groups currently participating at 30 locations in the transit system. From Cajun cellists to Latin guitarists and opera singers, music for all tastes can be found underground. The official MUNY musicians are identified by the banner that they hang behind them during their session.


“Music Under New York” from THIRTEEN’s New York Voices, produced by Matthew G. Kells (2008), features groups such as the Ebony Hillbillies, who can still be heard in today.

Artwork Highlights

Bill Brand: “Masstransiscope”

Since its installation at the unused subway station at Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, in 1980, Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope” has been seen by millions of subway riders leaving the Manhattan-bound platform of the DeKalb Avenue station on the express track. A colorful moving picture unfolds as the train passes through the tunnel. The artwork is modeled on the Zoetrope, a 19th-century optical toy. Though other trains ride the track at various off-hours, the Q train passes the playful work every time it heads to Manhattan.

Andrea Dezso: “Community Garden

Andrea Dezso’s “Community Garden” is a glass mosaic mural that fills the mezzanine wall at the Bedford Park Boulevard 4 train subway station in the Bronx. Constructed by master moasicist Stephen Miotto (who has installed over 30 station mosaics for the MTA), the mural depicts a lush garden of colorful, oversized fruit, vines, insects and animals and provides a stark contrast to the concrete jungle above ground.

Tom Otterness: “Life Underground”

In "Life Underground," Tom Otterness depicts subway and city themes in his tiny bronze figures, including waiting for the train. Photo courtesy of Treasures of New York.

“Life Underground” by Brooklyn-based artist Tom Otterness features cartoonish bronze sculptures on railings, beams and columns throughout the 14th Street -Eighth Avenue A, C, E station. An example of art in unexpected places (such as beneath stairs and hanging from the ceiling), the whimsical, anthropomorphic sculptures relate to the subway and the lore of the city itself. Though the size of stuffed animals, these small figures have been securely fixed to the station since their installation in 2001.


Another brainchild of the MTA Arts for Transit program, lightbox exhibitions featuring bright, vivid photos by primarily New York-based photographers can be found at Grand Central Terminal’s Dining Pavilion, 42nd Street Bryant Park, Bowling Green, and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center (between the B, Q platform and Manhattan-bound 2, 3 platform).


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