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Recognition at Last for an Underground Man : Graffiti: After years of playing cat-and-mouse with New York police, Chris Pape has found his subway murals in the same museum catalogue with Picasso.

October 10, 1990|JENNIFER TOTH

NEW YORK — In 1974, Chris Pape's older brother led him on an adventure that, more than a decade and a half later, drew his street art above ground and landed him a space in the same art catalogue as Picasso and other masters.

"Hi and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" opened in New York's Museum of Modern Art last Thursday; the show will arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles next year. One of the works catalogued is a photograph of a subway train graffitoed with spray paint by the unknown Chris Pape. (Although the show is 25% graffiti, the museum refused to show Pape's and other taggers' illegal work other than in the catalogue.)

But to graffiti connoisseurs, Pape is renowned for his works rendered on the fly in the semidarkness of train tunnels below the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

It was an early summer morning, Pape remembers, the sky was sharp blue, school was winding to a close, and he was eager, at 14, to assuage the restlessness that grows inside many city kids.

"Vince and I were looking to get into trouble if we could," Pape says with a shrug in his black jacket and white Reebok sneakers. Before their adventure was over, Pape had visited the place where he would paint much of his illegal art.

Vince led Chris to a public restroom on 88th Street in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Under the boarded floor, they crawled through a dynamited hole--the only entrance to the railroad freight tunnel running under the Upper West Side. Pape remembers dropping 10 feet to a dirt embankment next to the rails. This is where kids came to jump freight trains and dodge city "track walkers" patrolling the rails with shotguns loaded with salt pellets.

The thrill of jumping trains faded, but Pape's fascination with the cars themselves and the tunnels grew. "I liked the way the trains moved and felt, and how the tunnels sounded," Pape, now 30, says. He developed an artist's sensitivity for the environment and atmosphere around him, which he drew into his art.

The eerie glow of his first work, a replica of Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," reflects the mystery and intrigue of the original in the Louvre. Grate-filtered sunlight, dimmed by thick tunnel air, brings life to Pape's silent madonna. Free from glaring cameras and international crowds, Pape's work reflects the solitude in the abandoned shafts in which it was painted.

Today the tunnel, now sprinkled with about 20 entrances, is inhabited by dozens of homeless people who protect Pape's work and have, on occasion, helped him paint.

"I try to keep taggers away from these murals," Bernard Isaacs, the self-styled Lord of the Tunnel, said of a new brand of graffiti artists who scribble over past works. "Chris' works mean a lot to us down here."

Amtrak, which is preparing the track for renewed service in April, promises not to mar Pape's murals. And there are even rumors among laborers repairing the track that Amtrak is calling in specialists to preserve the murals by Pape and other artists who found a haven for expression in the nether world beneath Manhattan.

Stephen H. Markowski, a construction manager for Slattery Associates, said his crew was amazed by the murals in the tunnel. "We had these fellows (workers) from West Virginia up here, and they wouldn't stop taking pictures." Markowski, a native of Queens, says he was also impressed by the works. "I looked around too," he says with a sheepish grin.

Pape, described by one tunnel dweller as "sort of a nerdy guy with round glasses (who) looks like he just walked out of school," admits he began tagging at 13 as "a toy"--planting his name in as many nooks in New York as possible in hopes of building name recognition, if not a reputation.

Then, in 1975, he saw one of New York's first completely graffitoed trains. Like a "giant white cloud," the large spray-painted words "Stay High" whisked by.

"Some kids have Mickey Mantle as a childhood hero," Pape says. "I had Stay High 149."

From then on, Pape's life paralleled the history of New York's graffiti movement. Although not a typical graffiti artist--often handing sketches of his ideas to graffiti gangs to execute because, he says, "I preferred to let them risk their lives" on the dilapidated tunnel ironworks--he helped create the graffiti culture of the '70s and '80s.

"That cat-and-mouse game with the police and media led to instant fame," complains Emory Jackson, president of We Care About New York, a private organization of volunteers who have pledged to fight litter and graffiti. "Kids wanted that fame."

At 21, three years before the Transit Authority arrested 2,400 kids for graffiti vandalism in the first year of the city's crackdown, Pape tried to retire from making graffiti. But he couldn't quit venturing down into the tunnels every once in a while. "Each time I think, this is it. I'm not coming back to waste another day down here alone. But then I get this idea, so I'd have to go back."

That's how he found himself painting his version of Salvador Dali's "Melting Watches."

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