How a single sticker on a subway map could force New Yorkers to think about Rikers Island


While activists in New York are ramping up efforts to close the notorious Rikers Island prison, three design students are taking on a more modest goal: help people find it on a subway map.

In the different design iterations of the city subway map over the years, Rikers has been labeled and then unlabeled more than once. It’s currently marked on the official online map and on some station maps but not on the digital map kiosks or on any of the maps in subway cars.

Misha Volf, Laura Sánchez, and Estefanía Acosta de la Peña, three graduate students at the Parsons School of Design, want to change that with a new campaign called See Rikers. They’ve created a red sticker pointing out Rikers that they hope New Yorkers will affix to subway maps on thousands of train cars.

“It’s hard to get to if you don’t know where it is, but I think that that fairly simple graphical omission is really emblematic of a broader kind of inability to take notice of Rikers,” Volf said. “A map in a way tells the story of the city of New York, and by erasing Rikers off the map we erase the people who are there.”

More than 10,000 inmates live on the island, many of whom are waiting for trial and haven’t been convicted of anything. To get to the island, friends and family from around the city have to take the subway to Queensboro Plaza station and then the Q100 bus to the island’s bridge. A second bus takes visitors across the bridge.

But the subway car maps don’t show that at all, or even tell viewers where the island is. “A lot of people don’t even know where Rikers is, and it’s so close to the city,” Sánchez said.

The See Rikers sticker make it hard to miss:

The trio of designers hopes a guerrilla stickering campaign can cover a substantial proportion of subway maps. There are 6,383 subway cars in the system, and each has two maps, so they have a lot of ground to cover.

So far, the students have printed 6,000 stickers and have been handing them out to friends and fellow activists. They distributed stickers at yesterday’s Bernie Sanders rally in Washington Square Park and at a rally this morning at City Hall in favor of closing Rikers. Anyone can also print out their own stickers with files posted on the project’s website.

Having other people put the stickers up in the train cars is important. “There’s almost a performative aspect to it,” Volf said. They hope that if straphangers see other passengers affixing the stickers to maps, that will draw more attention.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the NYC subway, isn’t happy about the project. Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesperson, said in an email that the See Rikers stickers amounted to “vandalism.”

“They are mistaken in their basic premise,” he said. “Neighborhoods, including Rikers Island, are labeled on subway maps. The only exception is the subway car map… which eliminates ALL neighborhood names since there’s no space.”

While it’s true that other neighborhoods aren’t on the map either, there clearly is enough space on the current version of the subway car map to include a label for Rikers.

The designers say they see their project not as any kind of radical disruption to mass incarceration but instead as a small tool to make people pay more attention to Rikers and the people who live there.

“We know that it’s just a sticker,” Sánchez said. “We hope that this small thing, this little sticker, can bring people in who are not as familiar with Rikers and criminal justice reform.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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