For 2 Graffiti Artists, New York’s Subway Was Irresistible and Deadly

New York City was the playground they had imagined.

And so they bounded about with a dizzy energy, two French graffiti artists eager to explore a place they had long idolized.

They gaped at the fluorescent billboards, sought out Nike sneakers, sneaked handfuls of candy at the M&M’S store, applauded the b-boys and musicians, devoured Shake Shack, trekked down to the Brooklyn Bridge.

But the thing that inspired Julien Blanc, 34, and Pierre Audebert, 28, the most was the city’s storied history in the graffiti movement. They yearned to somehow be a part of it.

Four days into their trip, the two visited a studio in the Bronx where graffiti artists were spray-painting a memorial to the hip-hop icon DJ Kay Slay, who had died recently after battling Covid. The mural was made to look like a subway train.

In attendance were renowned names: Crash and CES, as well as Bio, Nicer and BG183 of the group Tats Cru. Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert were in awe. They asked each of the artists to sign a subway map they had brought along.

And then they had a request. Tell us, they said, about when you painted real subway trains.

“They had that drive, that look in their eyes, that they were going to go paint a train,” CES said. “I know the look. I’ve had it myself.”

Trains have long been an alluring canvas for graffiti writers, many of whom have left their mark on one somewhere. But accomplishing this in New York City — considered the mecca of subway art — earns a distinct badge of honor.

“If you’re a graffiti writer from another country and you came to New York and you didn’t paint a train, it’s like you just wasted a trip,” CES explained. “It’s kind of like a rite of passage.”

Which is why it seemed an innocuous subject that day, an unremarkable conversation among comrades.

By the next morning, the memory of that moment would echo ominously.

Back home in France, Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert were in an artist residency program in Toulouse, a city known for welcoming street art. They were new to graffiti as commerce but growing in acclaim as they honed their talents. At exhibits, some of their work sold for a couple thousand dollars.

Known as Jibeone, Mr. Blanc was burly, with an intimidating look that belied his cheeriness. He was a family man, dedicated to his wife and two children, who often visited the studio. After about a decade in the French Army, Mr. Blanc had focused on art, with dreams of showing in museums. With a vibrant and splashy style, he liked to paint on items like refrigerators or lamps or discarded metal signs.

Mr. Audebert, who went by Full1, was his contrast. Slim and with a boyish face, his most recent job was working for a printing company. He tended to be quiet, but he was curious and had a mind that was constantly buzzing. Although he had been a restless child, he could spend hours in the studio without a break. He preferred using stencils and sticking to clean lines and definition.

Their mentor at the residency was Ceet Fouad, 51, a veteran artist who was famous for his murals of cartoon chickens.

Based in Hong Kong, Mr. Fouad had been visiting his son in Toulouse for Christmas in 2019 when he was stranded by the pandemic. The mayor asked him to run the residency program, so he stayed.

Mr. Fouad grew close with the artists and saw himself as an older brother to Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert. For all of them, the studio was like a second home where they threw barbecues on the weekends.

It was his Hong Kong gallery that helped arrange the trip to New York City, part of a promotional tour for Mr. Fouad’s new set of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. He insisted that Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert, who often acted as his assistants on jobs, be allowed to join.

“For them it was like a dream, they had never been to New York,” Mr. Fouad said. “I wanted to give them a gift.”

Along with a photographer and a videographer, the group arrived on April 15. Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert were wide-eyed, relishing even their smallest experiences and anxious for more.

Each day, after hours of meetings and sightseeing, the group would return to a rented apartment in Midtown Manhattan, only to have Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert ready themselves to go back out.

“They wanted to discover New York from A to Z,” Mr. Fouad said. “I was tired with jet lag, but these guys, they didn’t want to sleep.”

On April 18, Mr. Blanc posted an Instagram video taken on a rooftop. He panned the famous skyline, then showed how he had written his name in red and black on a parapet. “Small painting while waiting for the sunrise in Manhattan,” he wrote.

It was the following day that they met with the artists in the Bronx. Afterward, the team dined with friends at Miss Lily’s, a Jamaican restaurant in the East Village. They talked about art, pieces they hoped to create, the tour, family, life.

Later, after the others went to bed, Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert slipped out of the apartment again, passing a table laden with nearly 200 cans of spray paint on the way.

In a culture that is all about leaving your signature in a public arena, the subway train remains a coveted trophy. The appeal lies in the chance for your art to be mobile, to circulate within your surroundings and be seen by a limitless audience. The danger and difficulty only enhance the reward.

The height of subway art is often considered to be New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was not unusual to see a train pull up to a station entirely blanketed in spray paint.

Graffiti itself was a pillar of hip-hop, an accessible art form like rapping and break-dancing that thrived in the streets. The early 1980s welcomed “Wild Style” — a groundbreaking film about hip-hop that featured Lee Quiñones, a celebrated graffiti artist known for painting subway cars — as well as Subway Art, a photo book of painted New York City trains that became a bible for generations around the world.

But it was also an era when hip-hop was regarded as a lowbrow subculture, when spray paint was synonymous with vandalism. And buses and subway cars did not always look like showpieces, bombed instead with amateur tags.

Around 1984, the agency that oversees the subway started a clean-car program. With a focus on the routine cleaning of more than 6,000 cars, the program was a warning to those who might spend hours on a piece that their work would be immediately washed off. Increased security at rail yards and layups — areas where trains are stored on elevated or underground tracks — was another deterrent. In 1989, officials said that nearly the entire fleet had been scrubbed.

Although graffiti is far less troubling to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority today, it continues to be a priority, with the police patrolling high-target areas. About 1,500 hits to subway trains have been recorded since 2018.

The M.T.A. expects graffiti-related expenses to exceed $1 million in 2022, about the same as in the previous two years. Any graffiti diverts resources from operations and is “particularly reprehensible” during a pandemic that has battered the system’s finances, the authority said.

Track trespassing of any kind can also be deadly. Last year, the M.T.A. reported more than 1,260 track intrusions. Two hundred resulted in collisions with trains; 68 were fatal.

Graffiti writers often have tales of nearly being electrocuted, injured or forced to hide from the authorities for hours in unsafe conditions.

In April 2001, Ellis Gallagher, a 28-year-old graffiti artist, was in a tunnel near the Bergen Street station in Brooklyn with Hector Ramirez, whom he had met that night.

They were on the tracks with spray paint when they heard trains approaching. Mr. Gallagher moved to the middle of the tunnel. Mr. Ramirez went to one side.

The police would later say that Mr. Ramirez might have been run over by at least three trains. A collection of detailed drawings was found nearby. He was 29 years old.

Mr. Gallagher still remembers watching Mr. Ramirez’s body being carted off in two bags. The incident traumatized him and, for a while, he lost interest in graffiti.

Now 48 and an established studio artist, Mr. Gallagher curates shows for a Brooklyn gallery and works as an art handler for Christie’s. He still does graffiti and has respect for those who paint trains, although he urges caution.

But the lore of New York’s subway art continues to stoke aspirations, particularly those of foreign artists.

“It’s like the Vatican for the Catholic,” said Loic Le Floch, a French graffiti writer known as Fenx. “You go there, you want to meet the guys you like, and one of the major goals is to paint a subway.”

Mr. Le Floch met Mr. Blanc through Instagram, where the two would compliment each other’s work. The app, while helping graffiti writers network, has also added a new dimension to the craft. Even if your art had been “buffed” — removed or painted over — it could live forever and be seen worldwide on social media.

Train painting, however, is a young person’s game. And it is something you tend to do with a local resident willing to guide you to a safe location.

“There’s a camaraderie that’s unspoken among people who do illegal graffiti,” explained an artist known as Aroe who lives in Brighton, England. “You then have a bond where you’ve committed a crime together.”

About six years ago, Aroe was in Toulouse for a graffiti event. He, an artist from New York and another from Italy were itching to paint trains. When a local writer bailed on them, someone else offered to help.

It was Mr. Blanc, a.k.a. Jibeone. He and another Frenchman ended up driving the group into the Pyrenees to a commuter train station where they all painted together in the dark. Afterward, everyone went back to the hotel to sleep.

Around lunchtime, Mr. Blanc showed up with a smile. After figuring out the train’s route, he had managed to take the kind of photos that anyone who has painted a train desires: their work as it went over a bridge and into a station.

For Aroe, the experience was impressive.

“You go into these situations kind of apprehensive because you don’t know the person and level of risk,” he said. “But everything was cool, it went smoothly, not a single hitch.”

It is unclear why Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert chose the Sutter Avenue-Rutland Road station in Brooklyn.

The authorities have not said where or when they first entered the tracks that night or how long they were there, only that the conductor of a northbound 3 train spotted their bodies at about 6:50 a.m. on April 20.

Cans of spray paint were found nearby. In their pockets were their passports.

The men had been struck by an earlier train, although exactly when was not known. The police would later tell Mr. Fouad that there was no sign the men had painted anything.

The news stunned many in the graffiti community. They flooded social media to pay their respects, with some posting spray-painted tributes to the two, adding “Rest in paint.”

“It just blew everybody away,” said Crash, one of the graffiti writers who had met the men the day before. “It really hits hard to see someone lose their life in a place you’ve gone in to paint.”

Crash, 60, said the last time he painted a train was four decades ago. “When we painted in subway yards and in layups around the city you didn’t think about the consequences of going into a dark tunnel,” he said. “You don’t have flashlights, and you can’t use them because you can be seen coming. So you’re basically putting your life on the line to paint, and you don’t think about it.”

Mr. Blanc’s children do not fully understand how their father died. His mother has yet to accept that her son is gone.

Mr. Audebert’s father, Didier, said in a statement that his son’s passion for graffiti had been ignited as a child when he would proudly show off the pocket change he earned from customizing fellow students’ bags and shoes with spray paint. His son had even been asked by his principal to create a fresco at the entrance of the school.

Didier Audebert, a sculptor, said that his son did not discuss his nights out doing graffiti. He was relieved when his son joined the residency and was applying his art to canvas.

“It was with his beautiful smile that Pierre went through a life that was full of adventure,” he said. “Now his family, his entourage — we are all condemned to be without him.”

Mr. Fouad, who had to identify his friends’ bodies through emailed photos, has returned to France. His tour will eventually take him to Los Angeles, Miami, Manila and Geneva — trips that would have included Mr. Blanc and Mr. Audebert.

He worries most that some people may dismiss the deaths as the cost of engaging in a risky crime and that his friends will be seen as less worthy of life.

“They were just really focused and super motivated about their art,” Mr. Fouad said. “Good, nice guys who had dreams. People who don’t know about graffiti, they’re gonna think they deserved to die.”

But to those like Mr. Gallagher, the Brooklyn artist, who hold graffiti’s history in high regard, that very risk is a foundational element of an essential American art form, no matter how commercial or lucrative it has become.

“It came from the streets, it came from the trains,” he said. “That’s the roots, the true, pure essence of graffiti.”

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