Makeover of the 191st Street Tunnel

By Seline Liz

A monotonous commute on the subway can be a very dull part of anyone’s day, but even a bit of color can brighten it immensely. Just ask the commuters who pass through the newly repainted 191st Street Pedestrian Tunnel connecting Broadway and St. Nicholas Avenue. There had been a backlash when the art from 2015 in the tunnel had been painted over.  It’s now been brought back with new artists and new styles.

The tunnel connects to the 191st Street 1 subway line and was first painted with murals in 2015 for a NYC Department of Transit (DOT) beautification project. The DOT put out a call for any artists willing to help paint a mural on the tunnel that would reflect the culture of Washington Heights. The mural was done with bright ’80s inspired graffiti and scenes like jungles and cityscapes. For a time it was a very beautiful part of the large 1 train station. Unfortunately, the tunnel fell into disrepair so another beautification project was launched in 2023.

Daniel Bonilla, one of the artists involved in the recent work, said the 2015 tunnel art was ready for a makeover. “I’m not too sure who was saying they liked what they last saw,” he said. “By that moment a lot of the art that was done in 2015 was already done over.” Graffiti was tagged over the original art of the tunnel. “If, let’s say, the graffiti community did stuff over it that was complimentary to the art that was there before…then it’s like ‘okay, it’s a living artwork!’, but it became more of a vandalized tunnel.”

The tunnel was painted white in January of 2023, which upset some people, but was repainted by September. The new murals use bright colors, geometric shapes, and repetitive patterns to bring life back into the tunnel. The graffiti community has staked its claim on parts of the tunnel. The section dedicated to the graffiti style has been done over by other artists. Just like Bonilla suggested, the styles added onto the wall make it impossible to tell if it was part of the original or a new piece.

Maribel, a Washington Heights resident for many years, says that while she likes that the art was brought back, she preferred the earlier style.  “It’s different…I’m an ’80s kid, and it’s not as ’80s-ish as it was.” There are still some installations of graffiti reminiscent of the older style, but it doesn’t have the same coherent dedicated space it had before. Now it works more as a collage of all the original art plus the newer art sprayed onto the walls.

Alecia, a younger Washington Heights resident, also preferred the older tunnel art. “The patterns are more simplistic to me, it feels more like wallpaper,” she said. She said that she likes each section individually, but the tunnel felt like a decorated backdrop rather than art. The new tunnel definitely has a different feel from the old one, more minimalist and pretty than the old designs.

Another resident was happy with the tunnel but expected it to soon be covered with graffiti. “I just don’t like when people do graffiti over the one [the artist] made,” he said. “If you weren’t paid to draw over the tunnel don’t touch it.” The new, smaller graffiti showing up on the tunnel is starting to reflect what happened to the tunnel before the new project cleaned it up.

All in all it seems that residents are happy that something is back on their tunnel’s walls, but they still miss the designs of the 2015 project. With the state of disrepair that is slowly creeping back onto the tunnel walls, we can expect another project to come along and repaint the walls with new art from different artists. Maybe then people will look back on the current tunnel with the same nostalgic fondness that they had for the 2015 tunnel.

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