Subway Graffiti Image courtesy of John Conn
By Laura Hill
People forget how bad the subway was. And tourists love the photos because this is what they usually see in the movies and many are sort of disappointed that it is no longer like that. I give them a chance to live it vicariously. A bit of history that isn’t all that long ago. Still, something they missed. If it was still like that, most would ride once and after, use cabs to get around.” — John Conn


Every generation laments the current state of affairs, whether it’s 1520, 1890 or 2015. As time marches on, the aspects of life we grow attached to change, and sometimes that’s pretty tough to take. And with all the whining and lamenting over “better days” the nostalgia flows freely.

At the moment, New York is in the midst of a little cultural phenomenon that I like to think of as the “fetishizing of filth” — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way; I am one of its greatest proponents. Everybody seems to miss the days when NYC was nasty and dirty and filled with thugs and crime and drugs and shit that everyone and their mother likes to call “real.”

What is “real” today is invariably what was sub-cultural once upon a time. It doesn’t take much awareness to look around and see how mainstream culture routinely appropriates the oddities of the City’s underground or the rawness of street culture; it always happens. The tattoo craze is the most mainstream these days. A few years back it was graffiti and street art — now in museums and galleries. And remember those other dudes a few years earlier than that? Basquiat, Haring and Warhol, once underground freaks, now Icons of American culture.

In December I found myself wandering through one of those pop-up holiday fairs by the park at Columbus Circle. There were the requisite Peruvian woolens, hand forged jewelry, and sundry holiday fluff. Then, amid all the cliché, directly next to a booth selling all things truffle, was some amazing photography from the late ’70s and early ’80s — original New York images of subway cars, stations, tracks, trash, graffiti, and generalized urban filth and the humans who lived in it back in the day.

Subway Graffiti

Image courtesy of John Conn

John Conn Photography

Image courtesy of John Conn

I was transported, as the artist was when he took them, “I grew up in the South Bronx. Always in the streets. I like the streets. That’s where the people are. That’s where you have movement.”

Having caught the tail end of the ’70s in the City, I remember “fondly” taking the elevated N train with my aunt to see my grandparents in Astoria; the cars covered with graffiti. And then there was that last J train in the system that I faithfully rode (at all hours of the day and night) out to East New York Brooklyn to see my teenage boyfriend; No A/C, windows open, not a wall unpainted, shaking and jittering through the labyrinth of track that wound through Brooklyn in the heat of the City summer. Ah, sweet filth.

Subway Station Graffiti

Image courtesy of John Conn

Getting to talk with the photographer and seeing some more of his images, I was struck by the distant familiarity of the City he captured. His eye, for a moment, was my eye — or had been long ago.

How were these pictures, so bleak and filthy, selling in our new New York… right next to the truffles?! How did we as a culture get from point A to point B? From the Summer of Sam, the garbage strikes, and the burnt ruin of the South Bronx to $2,000-per-month, 400-square-foot studios in East Harlem and $500,000 lithographs by Keith Haring?

When artisanal gin shops dot the streets of Bushwick and stylized “Warriors: Coney Island” t-shirts sell for $50 in high-end novelty shops on the refurbished boardwalks of the outer-boroughs, what is “real” anymore?

But, why do we even care? And does it matter?

New Scientist blithely reminds me every night that reality is not much more than a figment of my imagination, and yours and yours and yours.

Man at NYC Flophouse 1974

Image courtesy of John Conn

Man at NYC Flophouse 1974

Image courtesy of John Conn

Maybe the strength of John’s images, like so much great creative output, derive from the transience of their content. It’s unlikely that NYC will ever look like Conn’s images again. And for those who witnessed it, we can still hear The Five Stairsteps reassuring us that “things are gonna get easier.”

In NYC today, perhaps the only “real” question left is, “for whom?”


To see (and purchase) more John Conn original photography, like the images above from the Subway Series and a Bowery flophouse (circa 1974), search “TheConnArtist” on ETSY. A true New Yorker!

13 Responses to Offbeat: Splendors of Filth — The Lens of John Conn

  1. Dan Edgar says:

    Most of you must not have ever been in NYC in the 70’s. It was a shithole. Crime was off the charts, strip clubs and hawkers on every corner, subway was something you avoided, and grafitti and broken windows everywhere. Bums were cleaning your windows with brown water and pissing in your cars if you didn’t give them $5. It was a scary place. Now, it is a gem. I feel safer in NYC than I do in my own hometown on the streets. Guilliani fixed NYC. Read the story again and look at the photos. That was really NYC back then. Ashamed how this generation does not appreciate the past and doesn’t study history. Call yourselves what you want. I call you spoiled, entitled, lazy, and unappreciative.

  2. michael says:

    Im sorry, I know I’m late in the game but I must join in and point out, how in the hell did the city get ruined? Isn’t safe and clean a better way to live? It’s the biggest city in the world, of course its going to be expensive! You people that say it lost character, (Mike Urquiola), what the hell are you talking about? Have you walked around the city lately? Can you name another city with as much character any where else? Yuppies annoy you? Oh and the crackheads that robbed people in broad daylight dont? If you could avoid them then and not let crime bother you, why not avoid the yuppies that apparently bother you so much more and yet dont hurt or rob anybody, along with avoiding the clean dull modernized trains that no longer smell like piss. If he city is too expensive to live in, that means it’s thriving. Sorry, I cant afford it either, but I’m not going to get pissed bc the shithole town I used to live in is bettering itself. I dont care how old you are and how long you lived or traveled around the city, you apparently have the same form of opinion as the yuppies but are too hip for them, possibly your a hipster yourself? I think you are, just too cool to call yourself one (as most hipsters are). Half of you people prefer the old days with crack addicts and crime? Is it just me or do all these pictures suck? Im sorry but I dont care who the photgrapher is, what does him sitting on a bed have to do with old NYC? A picture of a graffiti subway car, a gate, an above ground station, and some dude sitting on a couch?! Wow what an amazing photographer (sorry “artist”). I guess anyone can write a nonsense article and put some BS pics they call art up and call themselves a journalist. I dont even care about the grammatical errors (even tho everyone has spellcheck) Garbage article all around, sorry Chris Vespoli, you not only need better editors, you need better writers and journalists.

    • el estebano says:

      dude, it’s not even close to the biggest city in the world…nor most relevant

    • Rafael Sånchez says:

      You should be sorry. You’re getting robbed by even bigger criminals. They just don’t look like crack heads. The new “safe” New York is for anemic people afraid of their own shadows. Furthermore New York City is not thriving. A very small demographic in New York City is thriving. Everyone else is being ripped off. If you like living in a feudalistic society, you are a fool.

  3. Ryan Galvatron Dobrin says:

    Why does the guy in the picture with the baseball bat literally look like a monkey with a huge wig on it’s head?

  4. Michael Fox says:

    My absolute
    The last paragraph of his quote says,” If it were still like that, most would ride once
    and after, use cabs to get around.” This is a classic example of what people mean
    Lets be perfectly clear hear. He is not speaking for the millions of people that are dependant of the NYC everyday. He is speaking for a few Hundred people that use taxi service at the drop of a hat. The quote assumes that every body that matters are the people he knows and interacts with.

    • Michael Fox says:

      Insert above. My absolute favorite part of this piece is the quote at the being by John Conn

    • Michael Fox says:

      Most would use cabs to get around. And we wonder why there is such a disconnect between the haves and the have nots in this country. That is because the haves are able to insulate themselves into a world where all that matters is them and the people that look and act just like them. As for every one els, something must be inherently wrong with you.

    • Marbles471 says:

      That’s projection. You’re ascribing motives to that statement that aren’t there. Conn was specifically referring to tourists, not native New Yorkers. Tourists, by definition, have money to spend. So of course they’d be morel likely to be able to choose taxis.

  5. WordAndReason says:

    Just enough computer to upload and write a bunch of stuff, but not quite enough to actually spell check an artists name. (How is that not an embarrassment?) Tattoos haven’t been “subculture” since the 19th century. The only folks who seem to be making a fetish of past “filth” (as if that’s all there was) are mostly those who weren’t there. The same folks who think Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ is some kind of Ric Burns documentary.
    Son of Sam, the blackout, graffiti, picnics and softball in Central Park, double features for 4 bucks, grimy subways, high crime, the Twin Towers….yeah….70s New York had nothing good anywhere whatsoever. Hey! How’s that “Freedom Tower” goin’?

  6. Alex Rud says:

    Looks like nyc now…..minus the graffiti on the subways.

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