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The story behind Tom Otterness's strange 8th Ave subway sculptures


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If you, like me, have ever wondered about the strange bronze-casted cartoon characters with money bag heads in the 14th St and 8th Ave subway station, New York Daily News has the story for you. Apparently the work, made by artist Tom Otterness, was inspired by 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. An excerpt below, the full story via the Daily News.

At the Eighth Avenue subway station, sewer alligators are not an urban legend.

Anyone who’s been through the 14th St./Eighth Ave. station has probably seen the bronze gator sculpture — and probably wondered what it means and why it’s there.

The underground gators — along with dozens of other whimsical creatures — are part of the permanent art installation housed at the intersection of the A,C,E, and L lines.

Titled Life Underground, the political cartoon-inspired project was commissioned in the 90s along with the station’s renovation. A certain percentage of each renovation budget is dedicated to permanent art for the station – and in this case that sum came out to $200,000.

With that budget in mind, when the MTA’s art program, Arts for Transit, put out a call for project proposals to be installed in the soon-to-be rehabbed station, Kansas native Tom Otterness was one of the respondents.

Today a Lower East Side denizen, Otterness is an established figure in the New York City art world. Now 63, he’s been here since he moved as a fresh-faced 18-year-old studying at the Art Students League. He does private commissions and gallery shows, but his focus is on public art.

He was a natural choice among the hundreds who applied. Otterness said the initial applicant pool of around 800 got whittled down to five or six applicants. The finalists then submitted full proposals, drawings and details.

One of the images Otterness brought to life was Thomas Nast’s satirical depiction of Boss Tweed.

“I remember researching the building of the subway and going through old photographs of the construction in 1890s,” he said. While those construction efforts proved one source of inspiration — some of the statues depict workers carrying giant tools – another source was the work of 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Nast’s work famously addressed the corruption of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed. In one drawing, he portrayed the notorious politician with a moneybag for a head — and that’s an image Otterness lifted directly from Nast and brought to life.

Many of the other statues play on similar themes of class and corruption, such as the depiction of a worker woman reading a book on top of a possibly dead businessman lying on a pile of money.

A statue with an even clearer message sits at the top of a staircase: It’s a large man in a suit and top hat wrestling away coins from a tiny figure just inches high, adorned in simple dress.

*Image of “Life Underground” via NY Daily News