The history of graffiti on trains in Madrid
Published in Madrid on 5 July 2011
The strong, punk-originated scene of indigenous graffiti, which dominated Madrid during the 1980s, delayed the local adoption of train graffiti culture. It was only in the 1990s that a train-writing scene took shape, one that, despite being only of secondary importance in the international arena, has introduced extreme behaviours.
Graffiti first appeared in Madrid in the early eighties. Two very different trends emerged and coexisted until the end of the decade: in the entirety of Madrid and most of its conurbation, graffiti followed a local model, in what became known as graffiti autóctono madrileño (indigenous Madrilenian graffiti) or graffiti flechero (graffiti with arrows), led by pioneer Muelle. In Móstoles and Alcorcón, working-class towns south of the city, graffiti followed the New York tradition instead, the one that is now ubiquitous in most of the world.
Stemming from punk graffiti, autóctono graffiti developed on its own, with barely any knowledge of the existence of New York graffiti. Its formal language, very different to that of the New York tradition, was focused on the tag, conceived as a logotype that is always reproduced with identical form. Its ethic and methodological principles were very different as well. Those codes, devised by Muelle himself, seem almost romantic from today’s perspective: he avoided using surfaces that would need cleaning, and ended up specialising in the use of temporary brick walls around construction sites and the billboards on subway station platforms.
The most prevalent autóctono writers behaved in a similar fashion, so much so that, by the last years of the scene, subway billboards became the most disputed surfaces in the city, particularly when the company covered them with blue paper between one advertising campaign and the next. But, in spite of the abundance of graffiti on the streets and on subway billboards, the rest of the underground walls were much less used, and subway cars, both inside and outside, were simply ignored as writing surfaces.
Contrary to most yards in Madrid, usually big and out of the way, the Empalme yard is small and is situated in a residential area.
The exception to this rule took place in the southern working-class neighbourhoods of Campamento and Aluche. From 1987, some local autóctono writers started to enter the Empalme subway yard to tag on the trains using markers. This wasn’t a reflection of the New York phenomenon, the writers simply wanted to exploit the potential of the subway cars to spread their names across the city. Contrary to most yards in Madrid, usually big and out of the way, the Empalme yard is small and is situated in a residential area, thus the easily accessible trains were a natural attraction to the writers. Initially, these were timid incursions, but by the end of 1988 a whole generation of local writers was constantly raiding the yard, solely to tag, and the whole line number 10 ran fully covered with signatures, both inside and outside, for months.
A bit earlier, in the summer of that year, one of the most active autóctono writers, Jojass Punk – who had just changed his name to Alien, carried out some experiments with pieces on the outside of subway cars, using latex paint for the fill-in and aerosol for the outlines. But the high point of the brief relationship between vernacular graffiti and trains took place the following Christmas, when a group of central figures of the scene – Glub, Rafita, Tifón, Tito7, Homoi, Abs and Alien – entered the Empalme yard to produce a series of top-to-bottom wholecars, the first in Madrid, also using latex paint and rollers. This time, the incursion had been inspired by New York graffiti, with which they had had contact after Style Wars was aired on national TV. However, the train didn’t go into circulation, and the experiment didn’t proceed any further. For autóctono writers, the real playground was in the streets and the subway platforms, where their signatures were seen daily by thousands of people.
Autóctono graffiti had a short life. The first primitive tags by Muelle appeared in 1982, and it wasn’t until 1985 that a real scene of writers were following in his steps, but as soon as 1989 the sustained advance of the American culture was already causing the local tradition to fade away. In a couple of years it had been largely abandoned, and since then only a handful of isolated writers have kept autóctono graffiti alive. New York graffiti was propagated from its traditional strongholds in Móstoles and Alcorcón through the work of the Quick Silver Crew (QSC), formed by writers from those towns and from nearby Campamento.
In 1988, the tags by QSC members Ardi and AGS (now Sems/Pocho), executed in a style never before seen in the city, became real pests, and invaded not only the subway billboards but also the corridors and the insides of the trains. Following a first AGS piece, painted on a train parked in the Empalme yard in 1987, it was the subsequent two years that saw Kool, Seone and other members of the crew exploring several subway yards for the first time and producing big pieces, again, often filled-in using a roller.
QSC were emulating the complex graphic styles and methodological codes of New York graffiti, a culture created in the subways of that city between 1971 and 1973. The culture has two characteristics that set it apart from Madrilenian graffiti: primarily, the writer is expected to constantly come up with stylistic innovations in his tags and pieces. Secondly, trains are the primary and preferred writing surface. In the early eighties this tradition was exported to most occidental countries as a part of the package of hip hop, a concept built by the media by bringing together three cultures which had so far been developing in parallel, all of them created by the youth of the depressed areas of the Big Apple: graffiti, breakdance, and the music culture of the DJ and rap.
The channels through which New York graffiti was exported internationally were diverse: breakdance crews that toured the world using stage backdrops painted in graffiti style, European gallery shows of graffiti writers turned gallery painters, movies like Wild Style and Beat Street that offered more or less convincing dramatised versions of the cultural life of the ghetto, but most importantly a couple of documentary endeavours: the aforementioned Style Wars and the book Subway Art. Both the work of serious and dedicated photographers, they offered a comprehensive and accurate portrait of New York graffiti culture, and became bibles for thousands of teenagers around the world, who reproduced the phenomenon in their own cities in a pretty literal way.
Madrid wasn’t among the first European capitals to embrace the culture. For example, in Amsterdam, traditionally open to foreign cultural input, by 1984 New York culture had been largely adopted, which led to the decline and disappearance of any Dutch vernacular school. In contrast, the customary slow cultural assimilation of Madrid, stronger in those post-Franco years, delayed the subsumption of the culture until the end of the decade. By then, cities like Stockholm or Dortmund already had thriving groups of writers who specialised in writing on trains, and international forays by train writers were happening more and more often.
By the mid-eighties, in Madrid and its surroundings it was only the towns of Móstoles and Alcorcón that were early to adopt the imported culture. These areas were, at that time, characterised by a large youth population who were particularly sensitive to subcultural tendencies. During those years, the very crude earliest cases of train writing in the region had taken place on the commuter trainline linking these towns with the city. On the capital’s subway system, beyond the experiments carried out by the autóctono writers, only QSC committed themselves to producing pieces on trains during the eighties.
However, from 1989, many writers who, like myself, had been educated imitating Muelle, came into contact with New York graffiti. Pretty quickly, the new concepts permeated the vernacular scene. If there was something the new culture offered it was, unquestionably, the promise of much more fun. Its undeniable cultural values notwithstanding, vernacular graffiti was for the writer a repetitive exercise that left little space for creativity. The New York approach, instead, involved an endless search for new formal solutions, and offered a new and extremely attractive playing field, a genuine urban adventure: the tunnels and yards of the subway system.
One night in 1989, QSC crew truly exposed me to the new cultural codes with a raid into Canillejas yard. Shortly after that initiation and generational-shift baton in hand, I gathered the few new active train writers to form PTV, the crew that, from 1990 on, was to lead the first train graffiti scene in the subway of Madrid. A scene formed largely by writers who had practised graffiti in the vernacular school for years. Rather than directly following the New York example, the scene emerged as a reflection of the fully developed train scenes of Holland, Germany or Sweden, depicted then in the first black-and-white graffiti fanzines. During the following years, the phenomenon developed strongly across the whole capital, writers discovered and exploited, one by one, all yards and lay-ups of every line, and, for a while, the vehemence of the scene overtook the capability of response of the subway system, resulting in the pieces running in traffic for weeks without being cleaned.
For a particular sphere of writers confronting the security guards became an end in itself.
The first contacts between Madrilenian and other European train writers were also happening at around this time. In 1990, German Loomit painted a wholecar in Canillejas yard and, shortly after that, the first group of Scandinavian train writers arrived, a group that included Due (Nug), part of the first VIM. These meetings immediately led to the first forays of Madrilenian train writers – myself and other members of PTV – into central Europe and Scandinavia.
In 1993 there was a pronounced halt in the scene, as most train writers retired. This was caused by two main factors: first of all, the subway company sped up the cleaning process, and pieces were not allowed into circulation any more. Secondly, the rapid spread of electronic dance music and ecstasy culture diverted the best part of the scene’s energy. Not long after that, new and successive generations took over, while, throughout the decade, train writing slowly changed. Originally a relatively painless teenage mischief, it turned into what it is today, something much closer to a guerrilla war: missions programmed down to the minute, CCTV cameras, tall fences as sharp as blades, and a security service known to regularly beat up writers. Originally an activity based on stealth, it is now, sometimes, mainly about aggression and even violence. This shift is visible in the world-famous tactic of the palancazo madrileño: on a subway platform, a group of writers will pull the emergency brake (palanca) of a train running in service, and literally hijack it for the few minutes it takes to cover one or more cars with paint, while the astonished subway workers and security guards are forced to watch on, overwhelmed by the numeric advantage of the writers.
Appearing in the second half of the nineties, this tactic stemmed from the custom of painting trains in circulation as they stop for briefly extended periods at particular stations. These stops take place as part of the schedule of the subway and are known by the writers, who carefully observe the system’s routines. However, this momentary halt doesn’t always leave enough time to finish the pieces, a circumstance that led some writers to wait for the train to pass again and stop it using the emergency brake, in order to be able to jump down to the tracks and quickly finish the job. It soon seemed obvious that the strategy could be taken far beyond that. The palancazo is Madrid’s contribution to the international culture of train graffiti, and is now practised the world over.
For a particular sphere of writers, empowered by the success of these tactics and excited by the possibility of recording them on video, confronting the security guards became an end in itself. This, on one hand, has toughened the methods of the security guards, and, on the other, has turned the game of train graffiti into an attraction for increasingly tougher personalities. If we add the fact that local street graffiti is becoming more prolific, shameless and brutal by the year, we understand why Madrid has become a global reference point in the most unmarketable side of graffiti.
Several other factors make today’s Madrid train graffiti scene very different to that of the early nineties. Since the middle of that decade, painted cars have not been put into circulation, or run for very brief periods, and writers, as they do in most cities elsewhere in the world, paint on them with the sole goal of obtaining graphic documentation in the form of photography and video, which is later circulated through specialised media. The increasing difficulty of the access to the subway has caused more energy to be focused on commuter trains, and for the last 15 years a train-writing mission often takes the form of a car trip of several hours, looking for the next unattended rural train-parking location. International contacts and forays are commonplace today, and any ambitious writer has traveled Europe before reaching the age of 20. And the growing market of specialised aerosol paint, started in 1994 with the revolutionary initiative of Catalonian manufacturers Montana, enables increasingly rapid and ferocious actions, transforming the tremendously inefficient old-school aerosols and the roller – the only tool that allowed some speed in the train yards back then – into anecdotes of the past.
On a national and international scale, specialised media have turned what originally was a group of local scenes into one large global scene. If fanzines enabled the connection of the culture throughout Europe during the nineties, now the internet makes it reach every continent and homogenises it to the extreme. Today, Madrid is, as any other European capital, part of that tightly united and apparently unstoppable worldwide scene of graffiti on trains.