Scratch-And-Sniff Posters Help Mask NYC Subway’s Odious Smells

If you smell something, smell something else, argues SVA graduate Angela H. Kim.

The smells of New York’s subway are nearly as diverse as the city itself: Swampy summer days may as well be a be a stew of ripe garbage, snowy winters bring about eau de wet dog, and let’s not forget all the tuna-sandwich fiends who like to indulge during busy commutes. Of course, making the great workhorse of transportation smell like daisies will never be at the top of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s list, what with all the other problems to fix. However, one enterprising School of Visual Arts student decided to make aromas her pet project.


For her thesis, Angela H. Kim created very clever Scratch and Sniff flyers that she posted around New York’s busiest stations. Straphangers at Herald Square, Union Square, and Canal Street could then tear off tabs swabbed with essential oils—like vanilla, rose, and lavender—for a moment of olfactory bliss.

The guerilla signage Kim created was done up in MTA style and looked virtually the same as an official notification. There, she printed a startling statistic: while subway fares increased 25% between 2008 and 2013, cleaning staff was reduced by 48%. Kim’s project is a Band-Aid for the bigger issue, which is garbage accumulation, but perhaps it will raise awareness of the problem.

In 2015, a local TV station conducted its own audit of the subway’s cleanliness. Unsurprisingly, 80% of the stations failed to meet MTA’s own standards. In addition to producing bad smells, the trash attracts rodents and leads to track fires, which in turn cause service delays.

Categorically, smell is an underutilized urban design strategy. It could potentially be used for navigating around a city or as a tool to better understand a city’s composition. In the case of subways, it could make the experience—or at least the perception of the experience—better. Smell ya later, subway.

All Images: via Angela H. Kim

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.