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This surreal photo shows the state of the MTA's war on graffiti

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

What happened after New York got rid of all the graffiti on its subway cars? The city now lets companies do their own graffiti — for a fee.

Daniel Maurer snapped a shot of this surreal promotional subway car:

The promo is for Street Art Throwdown, a new Oxygen Media show that follows 10 aspiring street artists as they compete for a $100,000 prize. The show was actually shot in Los Angeles, not New York.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg has defended the ad, saying that it's not technically a violation of the agency's long-standing anti-graffiti policies. "The typeface of the ad itself was not graffiti-style," he said, "and our research concluded that everything the show depicts is done legally with permission."

New York still spends about $1 million per year removing graffiti

Graffiti in 1980.

Graffiti in 1980. (Jamel Shabazz/Getty Images)

At its worst, back in the 1970s and early '80s, New York subway graffiti was so common that it was difficult to see out of the windows. As a former MTA transit president said, "When you're sitting in a graffiti-filled car, you don't feel safe."

Today, however, train-car graffiti is rare. In 2014, the MTA bragged about 25 years of being graffiti-free, and it still spends about $1 million a year removing graffiti from train cars and stations.

Indeed, the MTA is so strict about graffiti that it mostly refuses to allow graffiti-style ads for trains. As the MTA stated in a press release:

NYC Transit’s commitment to maintaining a graffiti-free system remains as strong as ever, even extending to telling members of the creative universe a resounding NO when requests are made to "graffiti" a train or station for a movie, television show or advertising campaign.

This latest ad seems to fall into a weird loophole, though. The MTA considers printed wraparound ads — like the one for Street Art Throwdown — different from spontaneously produced graffiti.

And even with that exception, the MTA's staunch anti-graffiti policy remains in place. As spokesman Lisberg told Animal New York: "The MTA’s position on the scourge of graffiti is unchanged: We will mercilessly eradicate vandalism to our trains, buses and stations anywhere we find it."

Ads bring in a lot of money to the MTA

Street artist Smart paints a replica car in 2007.

Street artist Smart paints a replica car in 2007. (Don Emmert/Getty Images)

Now that the outside of subway cars are clear of graffiti, the MTA makes a lot of money through advertising. In total, ads brought in $130 million in 2013.

The first interior and exterior MTA wraparound came in 2008, in a History Channel ad. It followed immersive interior campaigns that began with an ad for HBO's Deadwood. Efficiency consultants recommended similar tactics to Chicago's CTA as early as 2005. The success of wraparound ads in cities around the world have kept subway cars covered with marketing material.

Alternative revenue streams are important to public transit systems that are perpetually facing funding issues, though an improving economy and fare hikes have helped with the funding crisis as well.

Further reading: 4 times graffiti artists and police became unlikely allies