One of the first places I ever photographed, with my little Sony Cybershot, was the legendary Freedom Tunnel in NYC. Recently, the British artist Banksy has been tagging up walls in New York, creating a media circus, thrilling hipsters and art dealers, and royally pissing off the local artists upon whose turf he is treading. And with good reason. New York has a long history of amazing graffiti artists, some of whom went on to mainstream success such as Keith Haring. Most, however, thrive on anonymity. They take great risks to put up their work, but physically and legally, with only pride and personal satisfaction for a payment. To have their space taken over by an outsider, to have him lead throngs of fans around the city to seek out his latest piece, and to have him eclipse everything they’ve been doing for years while he still feigns being a “street” artist must be infuriating.
No better example of the greatness of New York street art ever existed than the Freedom Tunnel. Originally a railroad tunnel running freight trains under the west side of Manhattan, the tunnel was eventually closed down and abandoned. It soon became infamous for its massive homeless community that saw an unused shelter, complete with buildings, and set up homes. For information on the once thriving community that lived there in the 1990′s see the movie Dark Days and the books The Tunnel and Tunnel People. While the shelter of the tunnel did draw some less than reputable elements. the majority of the people there were just down on their luck with no place to go. Of course such an act of freedom and defiance could not be tolerated and eventually the city chased everyone out and razed every structure that could be turned into a home.
But this is only half the story of the tunnel. The name the Freedom Tunnel came from artist Chris “Freedom” Pape, who along with such notable painters as Smith and Sane, Ghost, Cost, and REVS created massive pieces on a scale rarely achievable for street artists. Some of the more well known pieces include a recreation of Goya’s The Third of May and the Venus de Milo.
Eventually, the tunnel reopened for its original purpose, this time for use by Amtrak. Not that this deterred the artists, the few remaining squatters, and the those of us who came to view the gallery. While only a few tracks are active in the wide tunnel, making it easy to avoid passing trains, Amtrak still was not happy about people probing the space and around 2009 began a campaign to paint over all the murals and pieces that adorned the damp tunnel walls. Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of pictures out there of the works that once adorned this space. My big regret is I was not able to return with more experience and better gear, and get some shots worthy of the works themselves. But I’m thankful for what I did get and the chance to see it while before it was covered in cheap institutional blue paint.