Meet the Artist Creating Insanely-Detailed Drawings of New York’s Subway

Philip Ashforth Coppola has been drawing subway art since 1978.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Canal Street, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.
Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Canal Street, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.
Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 137th Street-City College, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 137th Street-City College, Manhattan, station.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has 469 subway stations, and Philip Ashforth Coppola has a plan to draw all of them, tile by tile.

Since 1978, Coppola has been documenting the intricate mosaics and public artworks that adorn the New York city subway system. It’s a project that has taken much longer than he ever imagined.

“If I could,” the 67-year-old artist told the New York Times, “I’d still like to finish it.” He hopes to do so by 2030 (although if the Second Avenue Subway line ever gets completed, that could complicate matters).

It is easy to overlook subtle details during a harried New York commute, but the transit system has kept art in mind since the very beginning: “The railway and its equipment as contemplated by the contract constitute a great public work,” states the 1900 contract for the railway’s construction and operation. “All parts of the structure where exposed to public sight shall, therefore, be designed, constructed and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.”

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Borough Hall, Brooklyn, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Borough Hall, Brooklyn, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Coppola has always been appreciative of such beauty. One favorite is the Borough Hall Station, the first built in Brooklyn. “It’s like the Roman empire come to life, it’s such a regal station,” he wrote of the Heins & LaFarge-designed station, noting that architect Christopher Grant LaFarge “poured all that his talents could sum up into the mosaic décor of these name panels.”

To date, Coppola has self-published six illustrated volumes of Silver Connections, which contain his impossibly detailed and meticulous ballpoint pen drawings of subway artwork and ruminations on subway arcana.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle, Manhattan, station.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Over the course of his mammoth, decades-long undertaking, Coppola has seen considerable change to the system, such as the rediscovery of the long-buried 14th Street eagles. Brought to light during renovations in 1998, they are now part of a Mary Miss artwork titled Framing Union Square.

”Why did I pick the subways?” said Coppola to the Times back in 2000. ”Oh Lordy, that’s a good one. I guess I felt like it needed a little public relations work, that’s all. I thought it needed a voice. And then I just got hooked.”

See more of Coppola’s detailed drawings below.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 14th Street-Union Square, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 14th Street-Union Square, Manhattan, station.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Canal Street, Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Canal Street, Manhattan, station.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 18th Street, Manhattan, station, closed since 1948. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the 18th Street, Manhattan, station, closed since 1948.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Cathedral Parkway (100th Street), Manhattan, station. Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

Philip Ashforth Coppola, drawing of the Cathedral Parkway (100th Street), Manhattan, station.
Photo: Philip Ashforth Coppola.

The New York Transit Museum is screening One Track Mind, a documentary film by Jeremy Workman about Coppola’s work, on October 7 at 6:30 pm.


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