For decades, the subway has been a source of inspiration for many creatives. Keith Haring used the subway’s blank advertising spaces to create iconic chalk drawings. Martha Cooper photographed the graffiti writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s working inside and outside of train cars. Artists have used the subway not only as a canvas, but as a subject. For others, the experience is less positive. It’s easy to see the unfavorable aspects of the ride. It’s filled with smells, garbage, and attitude.
Andreas Verrios, known on Instagram as MrNycSubway, was one of those commuters. Riding the train before work would negatively impact his day, every day. Verrios grew up in San Diego, living in Los Angeles for six years, prior to New York City. In California, he worked for a personal injury law firm and saw himself moving up in the law business. Verrios came to New York in 2014 during his second year of law school. He had envisioned himself working as a finance lawyer for companies like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, but little did he know what the city had in store for him.
I stumbled upon the @mrnycsubway account in the Fall of 2018 while I was scrolling through images of the subway. My usual Instagram feed is filled with artists who create work in New York’s streets, so I was excited to see a photographer’s work underground. Mesmerized by his photos, I met Verrios and spoke to him about his journey.
It started with a pillow.
Verrios worked on Wall Street for a few years, and resented his morning commute. Riding the train was intolerable until he realized it might have something to do with his own perspective on life. “I think my inner unhappiness was being released by focusing on the negative aspects of the subway. I would look around and everyone was dreary, down and out. No one is looking at each other. Day after day, it wears you down,” he told me.
“I think my inner unhappiness was being released by focusing on the negative aspects of the subway. I would look around and everyone was dreary, down and out. No one is looking at each other. Day after day, it wears you down.”
One seemingly typical morning, Verrios decided to take a pillow to work. The twelve hour days left him aching for a comfy seat. He arrived at the station in his suit, a large pillow nestled in his arms. On the platform and in the subway car, people reacted to the sight of him – some people stared, some laughed. A few were intrigued, and asked what he was doing. At that moment Verrios realized, “if I can take everyone out of their normal funk and engage their minds, then what else can I do to change that?”
That day at work, he asked his friend Rae Isla to join him underground. He said, “I want you to come on the subway and play music. I’m going to film it. I want to see how people react.” As Isla performed, people were smiling, clapping, and thanking them.
Once Verrios made this connection, he knew this was the universe pushing him in a new direction. He didn’t need to bring good energy to the subway, it was already there; he just had to see it. He started taking photos with his iPhone, before moving to a basic camera. After taking dozens of portraits, he invested in better equipment. His Instagram account began in late 2017, and within two years Verrios grew into a full blown, self-taught photographer.
Verrios once told a friend that he planned on leaving New York. “At the time, I was thinking that I couldn’t stand this city. I didn’t like my job. The subway is disgusting, but that’s the thing that people need to realize: this is life. Life is not perfect and never will be and if you want to focus on all of the negative stuff, then go ahead, and that’s where you’ll stay,” he said. Verrios noted that the subway is a unique environment where you can encounter polar opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s pessimism, but there’s also creativity. It’s a place that depends on your current outlook on life.
When Verrios started the account, he wasn’t creating his own content. He posted images and videos from other accounts that were captured in the subway. “I started this because I wanted to capture and highlight the positivity in the subway. It’s evolved to where I picked up a camera and not just my iPhone, from being a commuter who highlights the subway, to now being a full-time photographer who creates content.”
“I started this because I wanted to capture and highlight the positivity in the subway. It’s evolved to where I picked up a camera and not just my iPhone, from being a commuter who highlights the subway, to now being a full-time photographer who creates content.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed over time is Verrios’s eye. He has captured a variety of subjects with amazing composition, each featuring an organic and unique quality. They showcase the creative side of the New Yorker’s daily commute. Photos of people standing on the platform and conductors peeking out of windows are images that resonate.
As Verrios’s Instagram grew, he explored collaborations with other artists: dancers, contortionists, fine artists, anyone who radiated creativity. He found inspiration for each photoshoot within his models. He usually meets with his collaborators in a specific subway station that fits for the shoot. The most difficult part is figuring out what the model is going to wear and how it will interact with their surroundings. Most of the shoots begin with his gut reaction to artist’s work, and what he thinks will go well with their aesthetic.
While there have been a lot of collaborations in the past year, he’s has also turned the camera on himself. After his first endeavor, a few friends advised him to become more personally involved in the photos. “Finally, I said ‘screw it’ and posted my first photo of someone taking a photo of me. I released it to everyone like ‘this is the person behind the account.’ I remember that post went over really well. It got more comments than I’ve ever received up to that point, which encouraged me and inspired me.” This is a prime example of how Verrios’s project has evolved over time; he never envisioned himself becoming a model in his own work.
Verrios hosted his first solo show at 198 Allen Street in May 2019. His main goal was to present a professional, well-curated, and well-executed event for New Yorkers. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had on this journey. We sold 22 out of 25 pieces. All of the money went to my favorite charity organization: Free Arts NYC.”
The show fueled his creative drive. This year, Verrios will be in Wynwood for Art Basel, participating in monthly exhibits in Miami, as well as bimonthly shows at SoHo Ink in NYC. Sometimes, you can catch Verrios in front of the Mercer Hotel, showcasing his work on easels. Focusing on the business end of becoming a recognizable artist, he is dedicating more time to pursue his creative career.
“At the end of the day, everything that drives me is creativity. It’s just an unspoken energy that tells me to go do this and go do that. I keep listening, keep following. It’s been the most amazing journey of my life. I’ve always wanted to be passionate – I just never knew for what. Now I know what it is. I’m 34 years old, and it took me 33 years to find it. If you’re looking for a passion just keep searching. Keep going, be open, and never give up. The universe will show it to you, but you have to keep listening.”
‘A Brief History of the Subway’
October 27th, 1904: A day that forever changed New York City. The Interborough Rapid Transit Co., a privately-owned company, opened the first underground transit system, with 28 stations to travel from the Financial District to the Upper West Side. Crowds gathered at the City Hall Station with Gustavino-tiled arches and expansive skylights. In their best fashion, men wore three piece suits and bowler caps, while the women wore floor-length ruffled dresses with parasols in hand. At the time, Ellis Island was welcoming immigrants into the city, and the booming population reached 4 million people. New York was rapidly expanding, and its citizens needed more than horses to ride.
In the years that followed, two companies, the IRT and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), would race to complete hundreds of stations throughout the boroughs, transforming NYC transit. In 1932, a third competitor was introduced: The Independent Subway System. This city-owned company started building lines to take over the entire underground transit network. The city eventually got their wish when the system unified in 1940, following the insolvency of the IRT and BMT. When both the IRT and BMT opened, they were pressured into contracts stipulating they maintain a five-cent fare for 50 years. Post World-War 1, inflation skyrocketed, bankrupting the two private companies. The city took the opportunity to purchase over 300 stations, miles of tracks, and thousands of train cars.
The subway would continue to evolve, but in the 1950s, the affordability of automobiles led to alternative means of transportation. In the late 1960s, New York suffered a fiscal crisis setting the stage for the graffiti era. By 1973, every subway car had been tagged with spray paint. Underground crime skyrocketed. Ridership fell to an all-time low. The NYPD estimated there were 250 felonies being committed underground every week in 1979. The MTA tested a few methods to deter the graffiti writers, but to no avail. They tried using barbed wire and guard dogs in the rail yards at night. They tried a ‘graffiti resistant’ paint for the subway cars in 1983. Without hope, they hired David Gunn as MTA President in 1984. Gunn cleaned up Baltimore and Philadelphia prior to NYC, but this task seemed daunting. Gunn hired 2,000 NYC workers to scrub the inside and outside of train cars as they entered the rail yards every night. By 1989, the cars and stations had been cleaned of graffiti and the ridership rose again.
For all its bad reputation, the graffiti era helped usher in more public art into the stations. In 1982, the City of New York passed the “Percent for Art” bill, which required that one percent of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects be spent on public artwork. Thus, in 1983, the MTA Arts and Design Program was born. Since the city started revitalizing the stations, the program has added artwork to over 300 of the 472 current stations. While some New Yorkers may maintain that graffiti is vandalism rather than art, without it, many beautiful works that now adorn the subway would not have been possible.
Caitlin Sowers grew up outside of Pittsburgh, PA and received her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and Art Education. She was first exposed to street art when she saw Shepard Fairey’s solo show at the Andy Warhol Museum in 2009. A former high school teacher, she moved to New York in 2017 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Business and graduated from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in December 2018. Caitlin also loves fostering kittens, going to art openings, and spending time in Prospect Park.