For most New Yorkers, the city’s subway system serves as a necessary evil — a messy conglomeration of packed train cars, inescapable delays, and dank, subterranean stations, existing only to shuffle commuters from point A to point B and back again. But for Adam Chang, a freelance art director and web designer based in Brooklyn, the MTA and its hundreds of aging terminals have proven to be an unlikely canvas for hidden artistry.
“I don’t know if it’s so much that I love riding the train, it’s just interesting to explore other stations and boroughs that I normally wouldn’t go to,” Chang, 33, tells the Voice. “It was probably about two years ago when I first started this. I was just waiting for the 6 train on Bleecker and I noticed the details around the signs that they had there. After that I started paying attention to each one a little bit more and noticed how they’re all really different and interesting.”
Since 2014, Chang has spent 43 hours riding and waiting for the subway. Following that first day at the Bleecker Street stop, having admired the platform’s floral patterns and intricate faience tile work, he decided to launch NY Train Project — a website devoted to digitally re-creating each station’s sign in a sleek online gallery. Last year Chang visited all 119 stations in Manhattan, and earlier this month he finally completed the second installment of the project by digitizing photographs from the 157 subway stops found in Brooklyn.
“When I first started I wasn’t even sure how far I would get with this project,” admits Chang, who grew up in Florida and currently lives off the L train in Williamsburg. “I did a few lines and there were definitely a couple times where I thought, ‘What am I doing? This is taking me forever.’ But once I started to illustrate a couple and put them side by side I was like, ‘Wow, this could be really interesting and look pretty awesome online.’ It sort of pushed me to continue.”
The site is beautifully designed, allowing users to easily scroll through stations both by borough and subway line. After photographing each stop’s sign Chang would take the snapshots home and revamp them meticulously in Adobe Illustrator, giving the images a polished, stylized look.
Below each picture is also a line of trivia about the platform. For instance visitors might learn that the style of the ceramic artwork found at the 103rd Street station in Manhattan is called Neo-Boriken, or that the Gates Avenue J stop in Brooklyn is the oldest subway terminal in the system. The idea is to catalog and preserve the history of one of New York City’s most iconic features, should planned renovations over the next several years render the subway system less and less recognizable.
“They don’t do all those intricate details anymore and I’m hoping I found a way that preserves it in case they do change [the signs] or they remodel a station eventually down the road,” Chang says. “They might switch out the signs for something more modern, which to me isn’t as cool as the older ones.”
Indeed, some of the most interesting signs (which the typical New Yorker might overlook during a blurry-eyed morning commute) are the classic mosaics that still litter a number of stations throughout the five boroughs. Chang’s favorite signs include a vintage banner design at Brooklyn Borough Hall, as well as a playful depiction of the man in the moon and a rocketship at the Crown Heights stop off the 4 train.
According to Chang, some of the less scintillating stops can be found off the L — desolate above-ground stations like Sutter Avenue and New Lots where the same generic black-and-white signs are mounted at each consecutive terminal.
“I mean, the L is already slow enough as it is, so riding hours just to get out there can be a little underwhelming,” he says.
Leading up to 2016 Chang plans to poll his friends on which borough he should tackle next: Queens or the Bronx. So far he’s found that his project has helped demystify the subway system for intimidated tourists and afforded ex-pat New Yorkers the opportunity to reconnect with their city after years apart.
“A lot of people had been [in New York] but moved out, and they were able to sort of reminisce about their time here, which I think is awesome,” Chang explains. Despite New York’s often tumultuous relationship with public transportation, he says the subway remains one of the city’s most recognizable traits. “You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes you’re stuck and it sucks. But it’s definitely one of the most historic things about New York.”
Check out some of Chang’s favorite subway sings below: