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The abandoned Amtrak tunnel that spans 50 blocks beneath Manhattan’s Riverside Park, colloquially known as the Freedom tunnel, is a space fraught with contradictions. For Chris Pape AKA Freedom, the eponymous artist who spent over a decade in the depths of the underground, it represented a sanctuary where he could spend time painting undisturbed. But Pape wasn’t the only one using the space. It also served as a semi-permanent refuge for an enclave of New York City’s homeless. For these residents the tunnel offered shelter from the cruelty of the streets, but their subterranean existence came with its own burdens. Now, close to 15 years after the mass eviction of the tunnel’s residents, Pape reflects on what it means to be free.

When did you first start painting?

I started graffiti in 1974, and I was a 14-year-old kid. I couldn’t do very much but I learnt the ropes and I did my first piece on the side of a train. I wasn’t writing Freedom yet, I was writing Gen II. They were great days. I just lived for graffiti 24 hours a day.

When did you first start exploring the subway tunnels?

The tunnels go back to ’74 when we were kids. We had our own little crew called the Acid Writers, mostly because we couldn’t get into any other graffiti crews. So we’d roam around the neighbourhood, and we discovered this tunnel that held freight trains in it. We would ride the freight trains out, they’d go underground for two or three miles and then they’d go above ground where they’d pick up speed, so we’d jump off them and roll down the embankment and scrape ourselves up and run back downtown and do it all over again. We did that for about four months until we got bored with it.

In 1980 I was painting on the side of a train – I was doing these ‘Chris’ pieces. I’ll never forget, I was in the tunnel and I started getting grey tones, which you could get by standing back a little further. So I began kind of drawing with spray paint, and I know that I touched on something, I wasn’t quite sure what it was but I knew it had to do with the grey tones.  I started experimenting with it on the walls of the park that the tunnel was in, doing portraiture and things like that. Then I was coming out of the park, and I looked down, and I noticed that people kept walking by this grate. So I thought, “I should put something there and then people will see it”. I wound up painting the Mona Lisa there. It was easy; the tunnel had three entrances, which meant it had three light sources. They formed a frame of light on the wall that was about 14 feet by 14 feet, so I went down there with a ladder and it took me two or three days. It was uncharted territory for me, and that’s how I got started in the tunnels.

What kept you down there?

It’s funny, I didn’t think that I’d spend 15 years painting down there. But then something happened. The first thing was that I wrote a book – it was written in prose and it was a tongue in cheek thing about the Reagan administration and being a graffiti writer and I illustrated the whole thing, and that was about half a city block long. I’d found a stretch of space that was that long and lit up, so I thought “What can I put here?” and I ended up doing that. The other thing was that, if I remember correctly, Crash and Daze went to New Orleans and I wasn’t invited, so I thought “Fuck that, I’m going to stay here and do these paintings.” Then I started taking it a little bit more seriously.

What happened then, it takes a little bit of a step back. If you go back to 1966, my family lived on the East side about half a block away from Lexington Avenue, where the 4, 5, and 6 train ran. There were these subway gratings there, and they were right by the bus stop. Beneath the subway grating about five feet deep were all sorts of things that had fallen out of people’s pockets as they got up on the bus. So the older kids would get string and a lock, and they’d chew gum and stick it to the bottom of the lock. Then they’d get the string and dangle it through the grating and let the lock fall on the object and pull it back up. I remember doing that for an entire summer – six hours a day. So I’d get the penny, or the nickel, or the dime – then I’d send someone across the street to get more gum, and we’d chew it up and do it all over again. In the ’80s I started painting the same objects that I’d found down there in the tunnels. I did a lot of them, and they started to fill up the wall. Then the parks department came in in 1983 and painted over them all. After that [photographer] Martha Cooper started coming down and documenting them.

Martha Cooper used come into the tunnels with you?

Yeah, she had more respect for the work than I did. She thought it was worth documenting, and I’m thankful for that because she took a lot of good images. Henry Chalfant came down into the tunnels as well. I can’t speak highly enough of either of them.

You were painting in the tunnels before the homeless population started moving in, is that right?

Right, I started in 1980 and they started moving in in ’86. In 1986 I was painting ‘The History of Graffiti’ and this guy kept coming up to me from this outpost. He’d walk across five sets of tracks and tap me on the shoulder and say “Hey, do you want a cup of tea?” and I kept saying “No, I really don’t”. I was so hoping that he’d go away, but I was painting the next day and he came over again, he couldn’t have been nicer. He said “Hey my name is Bernard, how are you doing? I love your paintings,” and so and so forth. Finally, when I came down off the ladder I wandered over and sat down and had a cup of tea with him.

As it turns out he was a very bright, very articulate guy who was caught in a situation that I think a lot of these guys found themselves in where they wound up with substance abuse problems. They were doing things like living in the parks above, and suddenly they found this sort of safe haven down there where they could band together as a community and it worked that way. At that point in ’86 there were probably five people who lived there permanently and five who came in and out. By ’88 I’d say that there were 20 people in that particular part of the tunnel, and in downtown there were a lot more – maybe 50 people. There was a big swell of people who suddenly figured this out, and I got to know them.

Did that have an impact on the work?

The paintings started to become more ambitious. Now that I had an audience to paint for it changed the tone of what I was doing. I started using a bit of colour and thinking a lot more seriously about the work. That was when I met Sane and Smith, around 1988. They were delightful. Sane was just this unbelievably talented guy. He would have been about 18 then, he was so kind and so respectful. His paintings were really labour intensive, real wildstyle burners and stuff like that. He also had a certain empathy with the homeless guys who lived down there, he spent a lot of time there and was friendly with them and they liked him a lot. He was always picking my brain about the history of the movement and what I had seen as a kid and stuff like that.

Smith was incredibly bright, probably not as talented, and would say about two words per day. Then tragically Sane died in 1990, which was an awful thing for everybody, and Smith and I continued to paint together. To me, the spirit of my paintings was that I never thought of them as paintings. I still wanted them to have this spirit of graffiti, where you work fast, you look over your shoulder, and you’re done when you think it’s done – when it conveys the message. Smith was the one who came up for the concept for what is really the best painting I’ve ever done down there, which is the ‘Third of May’. We were talking about doing a painting where everyone sat around the fire, it was a very special place. I had wanted to paint [Picasso’s] ‘Guernica’, and Smith said no. He thought that it was ideal for doing [Goya’s] ‘Third of May 1808’ based on the political bent to it – which is Napoleonic forces shooting peasants. But what really made the painting was the fact that in ‘The Third of May 1808’, if you look at it there’s a giant light being cast on the peasants, but you have no light source. So in the tunnel when they get the fire going down there and the homeless guys are sitting around it and the flames are shooting up, it becomes this wonderful three-dimensional installation.

A few years later when everyone was gone and they flattened out the flame pit and locked all the homeless people out, the painting was still there and it was lovely, but it wasn’t art. Without the guys there, and the flames there, and the trains going by, and the smell of the diesel fumes… that’s what really made the painting.

Chris Pape

This story was taken from the pages of our Team Player issue – available for purchase here.