Angela Kim

One scratch-and-sniff sticker at a time.

The New York City subway is many things, but clean isn’t necessarily one of them.

It doesn’t exactly smell great, either.

While the MTA hedges on solutions (and continues to debate whether eliminating trash cans from the stations actually solves sanitary issues), the artist and School of Visual Arts student Angela H. Kim is waging a personal guerilla war against the olfactory offensiveness of it all.

Kim’s scratch-and-sniff posters first went up in the Canal Street, Union Square, and Herald Square stations in December as part of a school project addressing space and the senses. (She’s printing out another round to hang this month.) Her signs mimic MTA service advisories, but they instead alert riders to the “odor at this station,” and feature tabs that Kim scented with vanilla, lavender, orchid blossom, sweet magnolia, and tuberose oils that she bought at Michael’s—probably originally intended for candles or soaps. In a clear homage to the MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, the banner at the top of the posters implores: “If You Smell Something, Smell Something Else.”

Angela Kim

Kim, a Queens native by way of Korea, had relied on the subway for years without thinking to complain. “I was just used to it,” she says. Plus, there was no other way to get around. Then came the SVA assignment, and suddenly, she couldn’t stop thinking about the stench. “It’s the kind of thing that once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it,” she adds.

The rankness of the New York transit system is nothing new. Last May, the New York City comptroller Scott Stringer authorized an audit of the New York City Transit Authority’s track clearing and subway upkeep practices. The findings were grim. Although the NYCT intends for each station to be cleaned at least 17 times per year, according to the report:

269 (97%) of the 276 underground stations received 16 visits or less from track cleaning crews during the one-year period from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. Moreover, 299 stations (88%) received 8 or fewer cleanings in a year, which is less than half the number set by NYCT as a goal.

Kim’s posters cite the fact that, by 2013, the MTA had hiked the cost of a single ride from $2 to $2.50; by March 2015, the fare was $2.75 per ride. But in spite of the increased revenue, the agency downsized its cleaning staff by 48 percent.

The resulting mess, Stringer wrote in a press release, “is a daily, stomach-turning insult to millions of straphangers, and it’s unworthy of a world-class city.”

By saying, “sorry, MTA, you need a better system for cleaning the stations if you want to charge $2.75 per ride,” Kim’s project reminds transit users, both in New York and everywhere, that they have a right to protest the conditions around them.

After she hung the posters, Kim would step aside to watch people react to them. “I saw a lot of positive responses—a lot of people saying ‘huh, that’s so true,’” she tells CityLab.

The irony. (Angela Kim)

Clearly, the Office of the Comptroller’s recommendations that the MTA upgrade its cleaning equipment and grow its maintenance staff must be implemented. But Governor Andrew Cuomo’s scheme—announced January 8—to create “cleaner, brighter stations…with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel,” applies to only 30 of them, and won’t be completed until 2020.

Until then, rip off a lavender-scented sticker and breathe deeply.

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