We Own the Night: The Art of the Underbelly Project

A new book documents an underground art gallery.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy The Underbelly Project, We Own the Night, Rizzoli,

  • Photograph: James H. Garrett III

  • underbelly project

    Photograph: Courtesy The Underbelly Project, We Own the Night, Rizzoli,

    underbelly project
  • Photograph: Ian Cox

  • Photograph: Courtesy The Underbelly Project, We Own the Night, Rizzoli,

  • Photograph: Courtesy The Underbelly Project, We Own the Night, Rizzoli,

Photograph: Courtesy The Underbelly Project, We Own the Night, Rizzoli,

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In 2005, an acquaintance introduced New York street artist PAC to an abandoned subway depot deep underneath the streets of Brooklyn. The space was completely dark, stiflingly damp and, most important, unblemished by graffiti. "As an artist, I immediately recognized the potential of the station," writes PAC in We Own the Night: The Art of the Underbelly Project (Rizzoli; hardcover $50, paperback $35), a book out Tuesday 7 that documents the 18-month-long project to install street art in the station. "Its vast ceilings, seemingly endless wall space, and the solitude all begged to become a part of the city's story once again."

Starting in May 2009, PAC and fellow curator Workhorse brought 103 street artists—including familiar names like Swoon, Peru Ana Ana Peru, Skewville and Revok—into the subterranean area to contribute artwork. A typical late-night trip went something like this: A group of five or so—including an artist and a videographer—would enter an active subway platform, dart into the tunnel, and crawl up and then down a ladder, before reaching the cavernous room. They'd bring flashlights, lanterns, a camera, and all the paint and supplies needed for each four-hour session. Over the course of these sessions, the creators covered the walls of the makeshift gallery with murals, graffiti and installations.

Even now that the undertaking is finished—the last piece was completed in August 2010—details remain obscured. Despite its large scale, with more than 100 works in a space roughly the size of a football field, no one besides the artists involved and a few journalists and photographers witnessed the Brooklyn project in person. After a New York Times piece announced its existence to a wider public in October 2010, others have found the space, some even marking the walls with their own tags. In response, the MTA, which strongly condemns the project, has sealed off the area.

Since then, the organizers have completed a similar project in the Paris Mtro, and presented a proper gallery show last December at Art Basel Miami Beach that featured work from some of the contributing artists. Meanwhile, the original pieces are now buried underground, theoretically hidden for future travelers to come upon. (The book's publishers have compared the station to the Lascaux caves in France, a network of caverns filled with prehistoric art that teenagers discovered in 1940.) Why, then, did they spend so much time and effort, at great personal risk, to create art in a place no one can see? Workhorse has his own take on its purpose. "Although it's easy to intellectualize this project with proclamations like 'it was a statement against the commodification of street art,' the truth of the matter is that we were just trying to have fun," he explains. "To create our own tree fort complete with DO NOT ENTER signs, like we did when we were kids."

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