Two years ago, Angela Kim peppered the New York subway system with a clever response to a question many of us ask ourselves during our daily commute: What IS that smell? Below is an interview with Angela on the process and response to her inventive and downright funny guerilla poster project.
Poster House: Every New Yorker has had a run-in with some random subway smell, some more shocking than others. Was there a particular incident that made you want to create these posters? Angela Kim: There were a few triggers that got me to do this project. I knew what New York subways were like. I lived in New York City since I was 9, so New York was my standard/norm. As I got older, I would travel to another city or a country and would be fascinated by their clean subways with no odor, but still didn't think New York had a problem. Then I met a friend who came to New York to study and told me that she bought her first perfume on her way to NY because she heard NY smells really bad. I just laughed when she told me that, but that unconsciously made me start to smell New York, where I'd lived for more than 10 years, asking myself, "Does it really stink here?"
Later, in my fourth year at SVA, one of the projects in my thesis class with Joe Marianek and Dinah Fried was about space and the sensory. I remembered the conversation with my friend and the smells of my everyday space/subway. It triggered me to think how we get used to something and may not acknowledge what the problem is and just accept it. After talking with my two professors, I researched why and what the problem was, and it was pretty serious. More questions came to mind, like "Is everyone aware of this issue? Do they know that it is a problem or do they not care because they are so used to it like I am? Do they want to know? Should they know?" All those questions were put into the MTA poster. I didn't expect to change the world, but acknowledging a problem can be a start for a lot of us to make changes.
Scratch-n-Sniff scents included vanilla, lavender, orchid blossom, sweet magnolia, and tuberose. Image courtesy of artist.
PH: About how many did you post around the city and at what stations
AK: It was about 70-100 posters. I put them up at major stations like Canal Street, Union Square, Herald Square, Grand Central, and a few other stations like 14th Street/8th Avenue and 23rd Street.
PH: Did you stick around to see the reactions other than those shown in the video?
AK: It didn't take me too long to see people's reactions in some stations. There were people who would immediately notice the posters as I put them up. They were reading, smelling, questioning themselves if it was real. In some stations, there were less people, so I would just post and go. A few days after posting, I tried stalking some hashtags on Instagram to see if anyone posted pictures of my posters, and found three! So, I imagine there were more people who saw and posted on their social media, which was really exciting!
Image courtesy of artist
PH: Was there a particular demographic of people that stopped to read the posters (i.e. students, guys in suits, little old ladies) or was it pretty universal? About how many people who read the posters did you see actually interact with them and take a sticker?
AK: That is very interesting. I think it was pretty universal, but maybe it depended on the location/subways stations. I think Union Square and Herald Square had immediate feedback because they are bigger stations and there were more people. Not everyone who read the posters took stickers, but some took photos, some laughed, some smelled it. I was surprised how my poster grabbed people's attention and engagement within a half hour. As you can see in the video, all ages of types of people noticed and interacted with the posters.
PH: About how long did the posters last in the space? Were people just ripping off the stickers pretty instantly or did it take a whole day/couple of days?
AK: I remember putting a few posters up at Grand Central Station on my way to school and checked on may way back home - they were still there with a few stickers gone. Sometimes I would put up a poster on my way into a subway station, and by the time I got out after posting a few more, it was already taken down. I don't think any individual poster lasted more than a day, which I think depended on the crowd, location, and time. There were also times where I put a poster and after a few minutes some of the stickers would be already gone.
PH: Did you create multiple runs of the posters or was it just a one-off project?
AK: It was a one-off initially. I posted a batch in December 2015 when I did the project, but after it generated a lot of press, I posted a second batch in February 2016.
PH: I see that the posters generated a lot of press, from Fox 5 News to The Village Voice. Since your name isn't on the poster, how did they find you? Did they just contact SVA?
AK: I was actually the one to reach out first to blogs, briefly describing the project and including some pictures. Untapped Cities was the first to respond and to write about my work. As soon as it was up on their site, everyone started to write about it or contact me for interviews. There was a link to my video on Vimeo as well as to my personal website in some of the articles, so it wasn't hard to find me. Funny story is that I guess some people Googled "Angela Kim at SVA," but there is another Angela Kim at the school - so, a few emailed the wrong Angela Kim. Luckily, she's also my friend and was kind enough to forward me all the emails.
PH: Did the MTA ever issue a response to your posters?
AK: No. I always wondered if they ever saw the posters or even heard about them!
PH: Well, if they hadn't heard about them then, they might hear about them now! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, and we can't wait to see if you decide to do another run of these!
Angela Kim's scratch-n-sniff posters are now a part of Poster House's permanent collection.