Life is a Circus

Thomas McKean

Creating Art from New York City's Metrocards

Thomas McKean is a deeply playful artist who is clearly attached to his city. New York is the subject of his diverse and memorable works, which range from greeting cards, to 3D dioramas, to short films. He celebrates life in the city and its various icons. And he does it using a very New York material – used MetroCards.

For millions of New Yorkers and untold numbers of visitors, swiping the MetroCard is a daily ritual, the key to entering the city’s iconic subway system. But for McKean, it’s much more than that. For more than 20 years, he has cut up and re-used thousands of discarded passes to create collages, almost always on the subject of some aspect of New York life.

McKean is part of a growing movement of artists working with recycled materials to create sustainable art. In his case, though, using MetroCards may be more about the perfect marriage of form and function, rather than a specifically eco-conscious impulse. Like his art, and like McKean himself, the MetroCard – in all its plastic, disposable glory – is New York City.

Today the age of the MetroCard is coming to an end. The transit authority is phasing it out, bringing in a new system of contactless passes. But McKean isn’t mourning the change. After decades of creating unique art with the cards, he is comfortable with this particular story reaching a conclusion. What’s more, he has thousands of cards – by his estimate, up to two years’ worth – stored away.

So, for now, his particular New York story continues.

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