WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, Manhattan (PIX11) — The tunnel at the 191st Street subway station on the No. 1 line serves as a shortcut connecting communities in Washington Heights. The walk is long, and the walls impose a perfect canvas.
“To see art up on the wall is so cool. I was like oh my God I wish I get to paint here. And look at me now,” said artist Daniel Bonilla.
Bonilla jumped at the chance to paint murals in the tunnel. He was chosen from among several other local artists by the city’s Department of Transportation for this special project.
“Some people are not from here, but most of them are from here. So, it gives them an opportunity to be part of something, a historic opportunity,” added Bonilla.
The tunnel has some history.
In the 1980s it was drab, dirty, and poorly lit until it was cleaned up by the city. Through the years, graffiti artists added to the walls, but in 2022 the city decided to paint over their drawings. That sparked backlash from members of the community who said it was an erasure of their culture.
“It was like an empty feeling when they painted the whole thing in that way, as they did quickly and without announcing anything…it was like when you get out, you are breathing. And it was like what happened,” said Vicky Azcoitia, a documentary photographer and graphic design artist.
The commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Ydanis Rodriguez said the paint job was needed because of wear and tear.
“Because of the level of vandalism that happened from 2015 to 2022, we decided to restart the process and we invited many local artists, and we also gave it space for free art expression. There is an area for those who celebrate the arts through graffiti,” said Rodriguez.
After a careful search, the designs were chosen to take up sections of the tunnel. The artists draw inspiration from the community that lives here, most of which have ties to the Dominican Republic. One wall depicts green plantains or platanos, a staple of Dominican cuisine. Another wall mimics the steps in merengue dancing, the country’s traditional musical genre. The artists had help from the Dyckman Run Club and other volunteers.
“I think it is very beautiful that this mural project is in full force, and it is going to be reinstituted. I just hope that one, it is maintained, and two, that we are seeing resources allocated to the tunnel so that it gets preserved because the art is a beautiful addition to it, but it is also a valuable resource,” said volunteer Marlyn Ramos.
Rodriguez said that is the plan. The city has allocated $30 million to start a renovation project in the tunnel in 2025.