Artist Jilly Ballistic Makes Literal Underground Art — In The New York Subways

by Laurie Henzel

If you travel in the NYC subway, you may have seen Jilly Ballistic’s work before. Strategically placed black and white images of WWII soldiers or civilians in gas masks pop up behind subway benches or on top of modern advertisements, giving the viewer the uneasy feeling that this historical image is hitting a little too close to our potential reality right now. While Ballistic (not her real name) who remains anonymous has been doing this for over six years, and is featured in the new book Women Street Artists – The Complete Guide (Graffito Books) the current political climate made me want to seek her out to talk.

I found her on Instagram (where else?) where she has over 7K followers, and after confirming via DM that she is indeed female, we decided to meet up at a local watering hole for drinks and a little tour around a few subway lines to watch her put up a few pieces. Ballistic is a petite 35-year-old Brooklyn native, who works alone and quickly to post her pieces, sometimes every few days. Watching her in action was really fun, especially seeing everyone’s reactions (many high-fives, smiles and nods for the Trump poop emoji poster). It sort of reignited my love for New York City and reminded me there’s always cool stuff going on here, even down in the bleak subway system.

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Ballistic photographing a piece

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Where are you from and when did you start this project?

I’m originally from Brooklyn and I started about 10 years ago, taking excerpts of my fiction and spray painting it onto objects I found on the street. And it was mostly trash, so it was a nice grey area that I never got in trouble for.

Was it words that you were putting on there? Or images?

Yeah, just strictly just fiction that matched the objects, so if I found a sofa I’d try to find something that matched, a text about a sofa or something like it.

How did that evolve into the subway stuff?

I did the street for a while, and then I just kind of wanted to do more, and — you have one of those lightbulb goes off moments, and it’s like I could choose the subway. I’m down here all the time. It just makes sense, but I had to change up my medium from scratch, I didn’t want to use spray paint. I wanted to work quickly, but it’s a whole other animal down there, and I like that challenge. So at the time, like maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I was still using text but also texts and images, and I was kind of making stickers, and then as I got comfortable with the environment, I just said fuck it. I can just paste it up myself, and I can go as big as I want or as small as I want and be as site specific as I wanted.

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OK, so you’re a writer. And obviously in the subway it’s illegal. Have you been arrested? Did you ever get caught?

Technically, it’s illegal. I’ve not been caught but I’ve been seen, but not by officers.

For example, there’s one incident at the L train at Metropolitan, there’s there’s a really long staircase there are several cameras, and, needless to say, I missed one camera because I really wanted to get this spot, and it was a larger piece so I was there for a while.

Yeah, and there was a MTA gentleman, a worker, who I guess like manages the space, and you could tell he didn’t know what to do. He was like, I’ve never encountered this before. I don’t know why she’s here doing this to this wall so I’m just gonna — He was polite, he was just like, “Ma’am you can’t do this here” and ’cause he was polite, I was polite, so I was just like, “Oh God, I’m so sorry.” I’m trying to peel off what I’ve already pasted the wall. I’m like, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” I was just really polite to him like, “I’ll take it down,” and he was like, “Alright, just get out of here.” So it was fine.

You have to be smart. You have to trust your gut. You have to look who’s around you. You can’t just go out and be like “I’m going to tag whatever the fuck” — no. It’s absolutely fun and wonderful, but you have to be smart about it. And it takes seconds to do. The longest thing is waiting for the right time and then taking a good photo of your work. Putting it up takes seconds.

And then how long do the pieces stay up for, do you know?

It depends on the piece. I’ve noticed that the ones that are inside advertisements like pasted on the ads in the stations stay a little longer cuz it’s like they don’t see it, but if it’s pasted inside a train car or like on a pillar and obviously not supposed to be there, they take it off and that’s like 24 hours. But I’ve seen pieces last months, anywhere from hours to months, it’s all a crapshoot.

So the imagery is vintage WWII? Or WWI stuff?

It’s WWI up to — mostly until the end of WWII.

I feel like we’re in a war right now.

We are, yes.

I mean it’s always like that, but it’s really bad right now, and I feel like there could actually be a civil war. And like, myself and my friends, we’re all really bad at guns! Liberals are going to be fucked because those guys are armed heavily.

Yeah, but they’re probably drunk and don’t aim very well. Don’t worry about it. We’re small, very skinny, mostly vegan, so they can’t see us.

Ha, OK yeah, but it is scary times right now.

Yeah, part of the imagery is the constant conflict in our country. It’s this war machine that we have. When I started in 2014 with the gas mask, it was mostly the centennial of chemical warfare, and how it’s evolved, but i’m still going with it because we’re still in this constant “us versus them” mentality, and it’s still fits. It’s just this predictable machine of conflict that this country has, so it just works, unfortunately.

Do you ever collaborate? I saw you’re doing something with Al Diaz — that looks interesting, do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, Al Diaz, his background — he was part of this duo SAMO when he and Basquiat were teenagers, they made this brand [SAMO], in quotes, and you know they went their separate ways, but both of them had stayed very true to themselves in their art, and I’m fortunate enough to click with him on an artistic level and on a personal level. I consider him a really good friend, awesome guy, and every now and then we collaborate on working together on the subway, and it’s like we’re the last remaining subway creatures doing shit down there.

Yeah, I don’t see that much graffiti anymore on the subways.

Yeah ’cause it’s hard. It’s a different life down there.

And you prefer it down there?

Oh I love it.

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You don’t go on the streets very much?

It’s rare. I either have to be really highly inspired in New York or in another city.

It’s interesting that SAMO created a brand. I feel like that’s a thing that artists kinda have to do now.

Well it’s funny, ’cause they did it ironically. They put the copyright on it. They had the foresight to see that it could become a brand, yeah it’s very much, it’s become profitable. I mean, we all have a brand now, even if you’re not famous you have a brand, if you’re on Instagram, you have a brand.

That’s true. Do you have a day job?

Yeah I do. I’m fortunate enough where I have a great job that allows me to do this.

Do you consider yourself a graffiti artist? A street artist?

Uh that’s a tough question. You know, well, I’ve thought about it myself. It’s graffiti because it’s illegal, but it’s not writing or spray painting cuz it’s historical images that you paste up, so it’s this grey area.

Like Swoon, what she does.  

Right, exactly, yeah. So I’m okay with that interpretation.


Or subway artist?

Subway artist. Yeah. I guess, I’ve always given people the liberty to call it whatever they want, ’cause honestly I just want them to know that it’s not commissioned, it’s just something that I do.

Have you ever been approached by a company to do something?

I have been, you know, sometimes you get really weird offers. I was like “uh no, no I’m not gonna do that. I don’t want that.” 

Do you ever go to other cities and do subways there?

Yeah I love it. I absolutely adore going to other cities because it’s a whole other animal. New York is its own. You have to learn the system, the ebbs and the flows, the foot traffic, and where the cameras are, and I just love it. San Francisco, I adore. It’s really fuckin’ hard in San Francisco. It’s either outdoors or it’s like one track, and it’s a wind tunnel and you have different challenges, which for me the hardest part on the BART in San Francisco is the wind rather than the cops. The fuckin’ wind. Then I went to Bermuda, and they don’t have trains really in Bermuda, but they have a really good bus system, and I was able to paste in their bus shelters, and it was gorgeous to have that whole dichotomy there. It created a whole different environment, and it was just for me such a personally really amazing experience, but it also created a great piece for whoever saw it, so I fucking love it.

Who are some other artist that you like?

Like we said, Al, Lady Pink, in terms of the street, yeah absolutely. Swoon has a gorgeous soul about her and is a great person. Gilf has such a political heart. She’s so fucking strong. Olek she’s just outrageously fucking wonderful.


I can’t believe we’ve never done anything on Olek in BUST, I mean hello crafting, she’s so great.

She’s fantastic. She’s awesome. We have worked together, but way back in the day we collaborated. She’s awesome. There’s just- I mean also just my friends. Most of my friends are street artists. I’m just so lucky to know them.

What inspires you? Sorry, corny question. I would hate if someone asked me that!

So what makes you wake up in the morning?

You don’t have to answer!

No, I guess there’s a lot of things. There’s New York itself, which is corny as an answer. I love the subway and how the ads turn over so quick. I love how it’s fucking broken.

It’s so funny when you think of New York, all the neighborhoods that are getting so fancy, but the subways… They’ve haven’t changed. It’s crazy.

It’s pretty funny. It’s like how much do you pay in rent and you can’t get anywhere?

I mean in a way it’s kinda cool.

It’s the great equalizer. Everybody has to endure the same shit, so that’s pretty awesome. I do research, I look for images, that inspires me. Politics are very much a motivator.

Plenty of material there.

Endless, nowadays.

What are your future plans? Do you want to keep doing this?

I never planned anything. I think that’s a good thing. I just keep doing it. I know that’s a really ridiculous answer, just say, “yeah just keep doing it.” But I can’t wait to do it later tonight.



If somebody was interested in doing something like this, what would you say to them?

I would say, “Yes, you should do it.” Without a doubt, yes, absolutely. Cuz someone just said to me the other day, “I’m not an artist at all, but I really love this, I really love the idea of this.” And I was like. “I wasn’t an artist either.” I had no fucking clue what I was doing, but I just started, and it I don’t know you just start it. You just start doing it. New York is a really magical place, people just pick up on shit, and I was really motivated by New Yorkers. And I would say absolutely, art background, no background, just go for it. It’s so great. It’s a wonderful thing.

You can check out Jilly Ballistic on Instagram or in the book Women Street Artists: The Complete Guide.

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