New York City is an art mecca. Art museums. Art galleries. Public art. Street art. One area that people don’t think about when it comes to art is underground on subway platforms. It is one of New York City’s best-kept secrets.
Look around and you will find works by Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Tom Otterness, and many more. Next time you are in New York and on a subway, keep your eyes out. Here are some of our favorite works of art underground.
Right in midtown, you’ll find both the Times Square (7th Avenue side) and Port Authority (8th Avenue side) subway stations. You’ll find art everywhere in both stations and in the passageways that connect them.
Times Square Mural, Roy Lichtenstein, Times Square And 42nd Street Subway Station
Most people walk right by, head down, rushing for the train. Look up and you’ll be rewarded with Lichtenstein’s futuristic vision of New York. Lichtenstein was a leader of the pop art movement in the 1960s. A lifelong subway rider, Lichtenstein created this piece three years before he died in 1997. He never saw it installed as the renovation of the subway station took many more years.
New York In Transit, Jacob Lawrence Times Square And 42nd Street Subway Station
A major American artist, Jacob Lawrence chronicled the experience of African Americans, Harlem, and historical events. He was one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. You can catch a glimpse of his powerful work on the subway mezzanine.
The Revelers, Jane Dickson, Times Square And 42 Street Subway Station
You can go to the Smithsonian Museum to see Jane Dickson’s work, or… you can walk through the subway station. There are 70 mosaics with people of all ages celebrating the New Year. It never fails to bring a smile to our faces. You’ll find the mosaics in and around the corridor that runs from the Times Square side to the Port Authority side.
Times Square Times: 35 Times, Toby Buonagurio, Times Square And 42 Street Subway Station
Walking down another corridor between the 1/2/3 and the 42nd Street Shuttle (most people just call it the shuttle), you find Buonagurio’s very colorful ceramic comic reliefs. There are 35, hence the name. The reliefs capture the vibrancy and colorfulness of Times Square.
Losing My Marbles, Lisa Dinhofer, 42 Street And Port Authority Bus Terminal
If the subway is making you crazy, you might want to drop by to see Losing My Marbles by Lisa Dinhofer. The colorful marbles stretch over five walls and about 90 feet. Make sure to also look up while walking down the hallway to see the Commuter’s Lament by Norman B. Colp.
Don’t try to see the art in Times Square and the Port Authority during rush hour. It’s too crowded and you will have a hard time taking a picture without people rushing by.
Opened in 2017, the new Q line (referred to as the second avenue subway by longtime New Yorkers) is a treasure trove of artwork — Chuck Close, Jean Shin, Victor Muniz, and Sara Sze are featured at the stations.
Perfect Strangers, Victor Muniz, 72 Street, Q Line
Perfect Strangers is our favorite installation. A native Brazilian, Muniz photographed 30 people that he saw on the subway — accountants, children, an orthodox Jewish man, a child with a superman cape chasing a balloon, an LGBTQ couple, a man in a Halloween costume, and many more. The mosaics are a vibrant and colorful depiction of his love affair with New Yorkers. You can also find his work in the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum.
Elevated, Jean Shin 63rd & Lexington, Q Line
For a black and white view of old New York, go see Jean Shin’s murals. They are based on photographs from the 1940s and 1950s. At the entrance, you’ll also see her deconstruction of the old, elevated tracks that ran over 2nd Avenue in that era. You can see her work in more than 150 museums (MOMA, the Smithsonian, the Barnes Foundation, and the Philadelphia Museum of art) as well as at Storm King Arts Center.
- You need to enter the station from the 3rd Avenue entrance to find Shin’s mosaics.
- On the Q line, you’ll also find Subway Portraits by Chuck Close, (86 Street, Q line) and Blueprint for a Landscape, Sarah Sze (96th Street, Q line).
- Seeing all of the murals on the Q line will take 1-2 hours. Start at the 63rd Street stop and work your way up to 96th Street, stopping at every station and then hopping on the next train to continue.
Let’s move on to some interesting art in the Chelsea subway stations.
Stationary Figures, William Wegman, 23rd Street, F Line Subway Station
In Chelsea, you’ll find Wegman’s mosaics of Flo and Topper, his famous Weimaraners. Most of them are on the subway platform, but you can see one before you enter the station as you walk down the stairs on the east side of 6th Avenue. There are 11 panels, some with the Weimaraners in raincoats or shirts. They are almost like people sitting for portraits — so real that you almost feel like touching them.
Life Underground, Tom Otterness, 14th Street, A/C/E Subway Station
On the westside, you will find one of the most popular subway art installations, Life Underground by Tom Otterness. Adults and children alike love stumbling across one of these figures. The playful bronze sculptures are all over the station on the platforms and the mezzanine. While whimsical, if you look closely at them, most have a political message about capitalism run amok. There is an alligator chewing on a businessman, running moneybags, and many more to find.
If you like Tom Otterness, you might want to go down to see his Real World sculptures in Battery Park City. There is also the Tom Otterness playground on west 42nd street.
Moving uptown will bring you to some wonderful mosaics at 116, 125, and 135 street on the 1/2/3 lines. This trio of works by African American artists tells the story of the Harlem renaissance, historical moments, and notable leaders.
Movers and Shakers and Movers and Shakers, Vincent Smith, 116 Street, 1 line
Focusing on the lives of African Americans, Smith was a teacher, printmaker, and painter. Smith portrayed 16 Harlem luminaries, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey, and Paul Robeson. Movers and Shakers is on the downtown platform and Minton’s Playhouse is on the uptown side.
Flying Home Harlem Heroes And Heroines, Faith Ringgold, 125th Street 1/2/3 Subway Station
Faith Ringgold is famous for her narrative quilts and paintings of the lives of African Americans. She brings a feminist lens to her work and art. In this piece, Ringgold portrays performers, athletes, political leaders taking flight over Harlem. Go on both sides of the platform and see how many you can identify and what buildings they are flying over.
Harlem Timeline, Willie Birch, 135th and Lenox Ave, 2 and 3 Subway Station
The third of this series of murals by Willie Birch features Harlem locals mingling with leaders such as Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Marcus Garvey, Joe Louis, Charlie Parker, and others. It is a colorful and loving tribute to both the leaders and the people of Harlem.
Parade, Derek Fordjour, 145th Street, 3 Subway Station
Since you are up in Harlem, we recommend going one more stop to 145th to see Parade by Harlem artist Derek Fordjour. He celebrated the African American parade tradition. You’ll see dancers, drum majors, drummers, and majorettes. The detail in the mosaics is impressive.
Sky, Yoko Ono, 72nd Street, B/C Subway Station
In the B/C subway station next to Central Park, you will find the Sky mural by Yoko Ono. The blue sky and the clouds make you feel like you are outside instead of underground. In fact, Ono said that she designed the piece to bring the sky underground “so it is always with us.” This subway stop is near the Dakota (where John Lennon was killed) and the Strawberry Fields Memorial to Lennon. It’s a good stop to use if you are planning to go to Central Park.
You can do a DIY subway art tour. Pick a subway line and get off at every stop that you see something interesting. If you do this, we recommend avoiding rush hour as there will be too many people in the stations to get a good view. If you go during a very slow off-peak time, you’ll have unobstructed views but will have to wait a long time between trains. In some stations (42nd Street/Port Authority and the Q line), that will be fine because there is a lot to see. In other places, you’ll be waiting. We have often done it between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on a weekday.
The subway in New York City is extensive. Plan ahead and make sure that you are on the correct train line. There are multiple stations with the same names (for instance, there is a 23rd Street station on the 1 and the F lines).
Unfortunately, there are limited elevators in the NYC Subway system. Check ahead to determine which lines have working elevators (the Q line is most accessible since it was recently built).
This is just a small sampling of the art in the New York subway system. Near every tourist attraction, you’ll find mosaics. There is so much more to see both in Manhattan and in all the boroughs. Look up, look down, look sideways and you’re sure to come across something interesting in the NYC subways.
New York City offers a wealth of experiences for visitors: