• London’s tube maps are currently decorated by Yayoi Kusama, with the 15th artist’s cover since 2004. But can you remember the other 14 – and was David Shrigley’s scribble the best?
I remember the days, not actually that long ago, when London’s tube stations were so run-down that some were like outposts of Hades, as notably celebrated in Jock McFadyen’s grimy 1990s underground paintings. These days most are sparkling clean, and even incorporate specially-commissioned projects by major artists. So while you’re travelling to see Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern, and David Shrigley at the Hayward Gallery (I recommend going to Waterloo first for the Hayward, then strolling along the riverbank to Tate Modern), you can gaze lovingly at a map leaflet decorated with Kusama’s contorted dots; and a few years before, you’d have been bearing a tangled cloud of Shrigley’s colourful lines.
They’re just two of the 15 art-fronted tube maps that have been produced in their millions since 2004 – there’s a poster exhibition of them up at Piccadilly station right now. It’s a simple yet life enhancing intervention that flows from the public service ethos of Frank Pick’s pioneering commissions, one of those little pick-me-ups like Michael Landy’s “Acts of Kindness” poster campaign, Dryden Goodwin’s staff portraits on Southwark’s hoardings, or Poems on the Underground replacing advertisements on the trains. It’s no easy task to design a concentrated tube-appropriate statement that will work on the cover of a tiny leaflet, and doubtless involves much to-and-fro between artist and commissioner, but the results have generally been striking and, in the best cases, thought-provoking. In a spirit of tube-spotteriness I’ve listed them all below, with my thoughts on their relative success – you can still pick up examples cheaply on eBay, if you’re that way inclined.
1 David Shrigley, Map of the London Underground, February 2006:
The simplest and the best. A mad dashing scribble of tube lines suggesting mind maps and mazes, entanglement and anarchy, its bright tube line colours keeping it cheerful rather than cloudy.
2 Eva Rothschild, Good Times, March 2011:
Looks inspired by Richard Long’s effort, but a more satisfying composition that cleverly echoes her fetishistic sculptural work. By making a broken decimal clock out of tube-coloured line fragments, she suggests a dashed circular whirl through the night time tunnels, lending the concept of a “Good Times” a slightly menacing air.
3 Liam Gillick, The Day Before (You know what they’ll call it? They’ll call it the Tube), January 2007:
A typically wordy title from the verbose Gillick, but the idea – the date of the day before the first underground line opened, treated typographically in tube colours – works well visually.
4 Richard Long, Earth, September 2009:
Imposing order on tube lines as he does on rocks, this is clever in its brutal simplicity, a lopping-off of all the lines (including the non-tube DLR) into stubby branches on Northern Line black. Not being an old hippy, I assumed the title referred to travelling through, or returning to, earth; in fact, the design echoes an I Ching hexagram symbolising earth.
5 Cornelia Parker, Underground Abstract, January 2008:
Kind of a cerebral twin to Shrigley’s spirited scribble, this Rorschach blot in tube colours cleverly suggests the mental journeys we make – and for anyone who doesn’t get the reference, it’s a true Rorschach test, suggesting a nice butterfly, or perhaps something more sinister…
6 Yayoi Kusama, Polka Dots Festival in London, December 2011:
OK, so Kusama’s known for covering everything dots, but she usually gets quite a bit of variety out of them. Anyone could have done this bland pattern that looks designed for an umbrella – intense and obsessive dots, or something based on her amazing infinity rooms, would have been more exciting.
7 Michael Landy, All my lines in the palm of your hand, August 2011:
Sensitive and human-centred as ever, you hold his hand in yours and follow the tube lines on it, foretelling who knows what future – but somehow it doesn’t really add up to a coherent whole and comes across as a bit trite.
8 Emma Kay, You are in London, August 2004:
The first and least well-known artist commissioned, Kay appropriately makes works about knowledge systems, and once drew the entire world from memory. This map was a bit easier, turning every line into a circle line, and suggesting London is at the centre of things; it makes an attractive start to the series, but looks more like graphic design than art.
9 Jeremy Deller with Paul Ryan, Portrait of John Hough (Transport for London’s longest serving member of staff – 45 years of service), July 2007:
A charming and typically democratic idea from Deller, this veteran employee sketched in tube coloured lines is worthy, but a bit delicate and impersonal in appearance – until I researched this, I’d always thought it was a Hockney.
10 Pae White, …fragment of a Magic Carpet circa 1213, October 2008:
A rather optimistic interpretation of the average underground journey, this complex Persian carpet fragment is woven from tube line colours, but its intricacy is the opposite of the tube map’s simplicity, and the Liberty-like lusciousness suggests shopping rather than stopping.
11 Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Tube Map), May 2010:
This looks too much like a normal tube map to have impact, and the idea of renaming tube stations was done better in Simon Patterson’s “The Great Bear”. Here, stops such as Envy, Joy and Compassion seem arbitrary, though they’re apparently named after her experience of those areas. One of her trademark big slogans would have been better, or changing the colours of the lines to represent the stations in some emotional way … and she used to be a graphic designer, too.
12 Yinka Shonibare, Global Underground Map, June 2006:
A world decorated in tube colours to represent London’s multi-culturalism, this uses the Peters projection to show continents in their correct proportion. But the map’s so small it looks lost (presumably not a visual pun) – he could have turned it on its side or used an imaginary projection to make it more striking and less apologetic.
13 Paul Noble, Troubadour Carrying a Cytiole, March 2009:
I know Noble generally works in this very restricted monochromatic manner, and I admire his 15-year pencil-drawn magnum opus Nobson Newtown, but to me this chunky busker says more about the artist than the London Underground and could have been for anything – in a word, arbitrary. One of his turd-folk squeezing into an apocalyptic tube train would have been more fun.
14 Mark Wallinger, Going Underground, May 2008:
The official explanation is that this celebrates the RAF roundel and Londoners using tube tunnels as bomb shelters in the Blitz. To me it reads as a blokey comment on The Jam’s eponymous hit (which went straight in at No. 1 in 1980), referencing Paul Weller’s appropriation of the Mod target, which was of course copied from the RAF. It may use two tube colours (Victoria and Central lines), and the colours of the tube roundel too, but seems more evocative of backwards-looking British culture than modern-day journeying. Hmm, the more I write about it the cleverer it seems. But I still think it’s boring to look at.
15 Gary Hume, Untitled, July 2005:
A queasy crayon drawing of an abstract backgammon board that’s not really representative of Gary Hume or the tube – unless he’s suggesting the whole thing’s a gamble – and the layout’s different from all the others. If he’d done one of his typically amorphous print images in hard-edged tube colours, it could have been great.
And finally, all the maps in order of release, from left to right, top to bottom…