Arts and Entertainment

Scratchitti: Graffiti’s Unknown Cousin

A deep dive into scratchitti and its often overlooked value.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You slip into a subway car just as the doors are closing. Out of breath, you search for a spot, eventually settling into a corner seat by the window. As you start getting comfortable, your eyes wander and you notice some markings inscribed into the elbow rest and window jamb: incoherent scribbles, a heart with a pair of initials, and…a drawing of an alien? These mysterious carvings may initially pique your curiosity, but you quickly forget them as you get off the train, heading to your next destination. 

These marks are called scratchitti, a form of graffiti etched onto surfaces like glass or plexiglass that decorates the seats, metal walls, and windows of NYC subway cars. Scratchitti became popular in the 1990s after the eradication of spray-painted subways through the NYC Transit Authority’s 1984 Clean Car Program. Before this, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the subway system was filled with graffiti, ranging from mere marker tags to entire spray paint masterpieces. The Clean Train Movement removed all the cars with graffiti from the subway system for cleaning or replacement. In 1989, the final graffiti-covered car was taken out of service—thankfully, however, the spirit of graffiti did not die there. Artists migrated to rooftops and walls on public streets to display their work, which ranged from complex murals on the sides of buildings to speedily sprayed tags on abandoned storefronts. In the subways, artists found a new way to get their tags seen by the masses—by scratching them into the subway car’s interior. Though still illegal, scratchitti was less likely to be removed because the windows cost around $6,000 to replace, and any other surface in the cars’ interiors was not worth the effort to deconstruct and replace. It is this higher guarantee of longevity that first drew people to scratchitti.

Despite the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of inscribed tags throughout the vast NYC subway system, there is not as much information on the individual artists that made them as there is with graffiti culture. The difference comes down to organization. With graffiti, people come together and create “crews” with whom to go out and spray-paint, both for protection and companionship. Graffiti artists have to carry around spray paint cans, which make their intentions extremely clear to any passerby or police; ideally, someone serves as a lookout so the crew doesn’t get caught and arrested. Graffiti on rooftops or the sides of buildings tends to be larger and more elaborate since it is intended to be seen by the public from far away. Because of the high risk associated with this activity, artists want the end result to be impressive in order to make the effort worth it. On the other hand, Scratchitti requires little to no planning and can be done with a small tool that can be easily hidden from sight. Scratchitti is also loosely organized, as the action is individual in nature (limited number of seats; multiple people draws more attention in a small train car) and the people who choose to scratch range from those killing time on their commute home to committed artists who might already be established in the graffiti world. 

Even so, there is one sole urban legend that permeates the scratchitti realm: PRAY. In the 1970s, words like “PRAY” and “LOVE GOD” were carved into almost every pay phone, train pole, and support beam around NYC. No concrete facts about the artist’s personal life are known, but through various sightings over the years, it has been concluded that the artist was an elderly homeless woman who etched her tag into the city’s entire payphone population. Her persistence inspired others to continue scratching her message of “PRAY,” even after her assumed death around the ‘80s or ‘90s. In modern NYC, “PRAY” can be spotted on the window jambs of the orange and yellow trains; though it cannot be confirmed that any of these enduring messages were written by the queen of scratchitti herself, the fact that she has copy-cats running around continuing to spread her message is just another example of her immense influence on scratchitti and graffiti as a whole.

Each time you sit in a corner window seat on a yellow and orange train, you are offered a random assortment of markings made by people who refused to be erased by the test of time. Every scratch mark is the manifestation of a person committed to getting some message out to the world—history is literally at your fingertips. Though scratchitti is often overlooked because it is not as artistically inclined as graffiti, paying attention to the small details of the everyday is grounding, especially in such a fast-moving city where we tend to take the little things for granted. The next time you enter a subway car, take a second to observe the scratchitti with the knowledge that you are absorbing another person’s message. By noticing it, you give recognition to what is often overlooked.