'Life Underground' Sculptures – New York, New York - Atlas Obscura

'Life Underground' Sculptures

An artist's cute bronze subway sculptures belie his violent artistic past. 


Each day, thousands of subway riders at the 14th Street/8th Avenue station walk hurriedly by the tiny bronze figures that adorn the platforms. As they continue on with quickening footsteps, many miss out on one of the true gems of public art in New York City, Life Underground. But the playful statues belie the artist’s past as a controversial and violent performance artist.

Designed by artist Tom Otterness, the miniature cartoon-like statues depict the real and imagined details of life and history in hectic New York City. In the most notable, a sewer alligator chomps on the behind of a money bag-headed miniature while another well-dressed man, perhaps based loosely on 19th century political machine leader Boss Tweed, looks on.

Cute and playful with political undertones, each of the more than 100 bronze statues represent the tiny details, history, and myths of New York City, a place so chaotic that many of its residents miss out on the little things such as these. Constructed as part of a multi-million dollar subway renovation project in 2001, the clever bronze works have been widely overshadowed by Tom Otterness’ past work, a film entitled “Shot Dog Film,” in which Otterness shoots and kills a dog.

Filmed in 1977,  Otterness has publicaly apologized for the violent, looped film, saying “Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.” Despite the years and the apology some have called for Otterness’ funding to be pulled.

Know Before You Go

Take any A, C or E train to the 14th St station. Also the L train to the 8th Avenue station and follow signs to the A, C, E platform.Some of the statues are on the upper level, most are on train platforms, many under stairwells.

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