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For more than 20 years, Thomas McKean has turned the New York City fare card into art. His supplies may run out as the city upgrades its payment system.
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Thomas McKean has noticed a number of things New Yorkers don’t do anymore: leaving business cards on windshields, using plastic “Thank You” bags and hailing yellow cabs. Soon, Mr. McKean, an artist, will add another ubiquitous piece of New York history to that list: swiping MetroCards to ride the subway or bus.
For more than 20 years, Mr. McKean has used MetroCards, along with gloves, business cards and other found objects, to make art. Using small scissors and glue, Mr. McKean cuts, stacks and arranges the thin plastic cards into yellow taxis, New York City streetscapes, abstract designs, miniature buildings and, of course, reconstituted MetroCards.
“I was amazed how, from this one little flimsy piece of material, there really is a universe,” he said. Mr. McKean declined to give his age but said he was born in New York City and has lived in the East Village for more than 30 years.
An exhibition of his work, “Off the Rails: MetroCard Art (and More),” is now on display at the home goods store Fishs Eddy in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan.
But Mr. McKean’s supply of MetroCards may soon run dry. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to replace MetroCards with a tap-and-go system beginning next year. Most riders are expected to connect their mobile phones or credit cards to the new payment system, called OMNY (short for One Metro New York).
A sign in the window of Fishs Eddy nods to the fare card’s eventual demise: “In loving memory of the MetroCard.”
Turning fare cards into art is not new. But the partnership between Mr. McKean and Fishs Eddy, a cabinet of curiosities filled with new and antique dishes, miniature kitchen items and New York City oddities, was a natural fit.
“It couldn’t fit better, it’s perfect, it’s so New York,” said Julie Gaines, who opened Fishs Eddy 36 years ago.
With Mr. McKean’s work on display at the store, Ms. Gaines and her staff are now fielding questions about the fate of the fare card.
“People are like, ‘Are you serious?’” Ms. Gaines said about the changes to the fare payment system. “They come to the counter every time like we’re the authority on it.”
Mr. McKean started transforming the fare cards into art after seeing a poster on the subway that advertised the MetroCard as a new way to pay for rides. He had forgotten a book to read on his commute that day, so his mind began to drift: How many words could he spell with the letters in “MetroCard”?
He returned home and began “crazily” redesigning the MetroCard, he said. Mr. McKean collaged together new creations and playful adaptations and “realized what amazing material the MetroCard is.” Over time, he grew to appreciate its shine, durability and tones. If you look closely, different print runs of the cards produce different colors, Mr. McKean said. The yellow, for example, goes from a canary yellow to more of an ocher.
Many of Mr. McKean’s works are two-dimensional, but for some street scenes and buildings he becomes a “3-D printer” and stacks MetroCards tightly together, he said.
His materials are simple: MetroCards, Tacky Glue and five-inch scissors made by Dahle, a German company (his favorite, after narrowing down a crowded field). Mr. McKean usually works on a few pieces at once to allow the glue to set. Some pieces can take hours upon hours.
Mr. McKean hit the jackpot in 2017 when he discovered a trove of MetroCards stashed behind a ticket machine at Grand Central Station. He gathered as many of the fare cards as he could reach and returned at least three more times with an umbrella so he could scoop them out.
At his East Village apartment, Mr. McKean keeps several boxes of MetroCards organized with small dividers. He collects regular MetroCards as well as limited-edition cards issued by the M.T.A. and special fare passes, which expand his palette beyond the traditional blue, yellow, black and brown.
“Nobody believes it’s from MetroCards,” he said of the colorful designs of birds and flowers he created. “It was challenging because my supply is limited with the special ones.”
But he largely welcomes the limitations of the traditional color palette in his mosaic works — the stars of the show at Fishs Eddy — which depict the Chrysler Building, the moon over Manhattan and tenement buildings, among other New York City sights. There are also 3-D scenes: a barn with a cow, a church with a stained-glass window, a tree-lined city street, a house with a table and chairs. Everything is made of MetroCards.
Ms. Gaines said that Mr. McKean’s work was particularly “poignant” in the final days of the MetroCard, as the M.T.A. shifts toward allowing riders to pay by tapping a credit card or smartphone. The new system, OMNY, started in 2019 on a handful of subway and bus routes. The tap-and-go cards will begin rolling out to vending machines in the first half of 2023. MetroCards will still be available for riders and won’t be fully retired until a later date, but the machines that dispense them will be phased out and replaced in the “not-so-distant future,” the M.T.A. said.
Like the subway system it serves, the city’s ticketing operation has evolved over time. When the subway opened in 1904, riders paid 5 cents for a paper ticket. By 1920, electric turnstiles allowed subway riders to drop nickels and then dimes into small slots. It wasn’t until 1953 that the city introduced tokens, which would remain in place until 1993, when the MetroCard was first introduced. It was hailed by an M.T.A. executive as the “biggest change in the culture of the subways since World War II.”
“I resisted the MetroCard,” Mr. McKean said. “I wouldn’t use it at first. I kept using the token. The token was fun because you would often chat with a booth clerk, and they’d be glad if someone talked to them and not yell at them.”
Times have changed for Ms. Gaines and her store, too. When Fishs Eddy moved from the Upper West Side to a few blocks off Union Square three decades ago, “it was dangerous” to walk in the area, she said. Since then, many businesses have come and gone. The coronavirus pandemic pushed her own store to the brink of closure.
“It’s literally a miracle we’re still here,” Ms. Gaines said.
Business is still not at prepandemic levels, she said, but the store is getting by. After lockdown mandates lifted in New York City, Ms. Gaines had a swell of longtime customers coming back to make sure the store was still open.
Soon, Ms. Gaines, Mr. McKean and millions of New Yorkers and visitors will have to adapt to a new routine once again, this time when boarding buses and subways. Mr. McKean will have to find a new material to work with — and upgrade his 15-year-old Nokia phone in order to use the OMNY system.
“All of my friends were worried for me, asking, ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. Once he runs out of MetroCards, “it will be time to move on.”
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