(New York Jewish Week) — While waiting for the L train at Union Square one Sunday earlier this month, a commuter named Liz spotted something — or rather someone — whose doings had bedeviled her and a few other New Yorkers for more than a year: A white man, wearing a leather jacket and a black hoodie, scrawling a neo-Nazi slogan in black marker on a support beam.
Liz snapped the man’s photo but he quickly ran away. Since then, she and other activists in the city have been searching for the man, whom they have dubbed “The L Train Nazi.” His graffiti of choice appears to be the number “1488,” a neo-Nazi code recognized as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
“I actually saw someone doodling on the support column,” Liz told the New York Jewish Week. “Sure enough, he was writing ‘1488.’ I was like, ‘get some pictures.’ He looked at me and tried to ignore it [me] and act like nothing happened.”
Liz, like some other activists who spoke to the New York Jewish Week for this article, declined to give her full name or divulge many details about herself, for fear of being harmed by the same white supremacists she has spent the past few years trying to expose. As an anti-far-right activist, Liz said she has attended multiple far-right and neo-Nazi events in cities across the northeast. At these events, she said she has physically confronted rally-goers and has been arrested two times.
The recent encounter on the L train platform, Liz said, didn’t escalate into violence. “He didn’t want to get an assault charge, and I didn’t want to get an assault charge,” she said. “He stormed off and I forwarded the pictures.”
The number 1488, in neo-Nazi speak, stands for two separate things: The 14 stands for a 14-word white supremacist creed — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — and 88 stands for “Heil Hitler,” as “h” is the eighth letter of the alphabet.
Beginning in November 2021, other Twitter users had taken photos of similar graffiti at subway stations on the L and M lines in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. This isn’t the first time hate symbols have plagued the L train: two trains were removed from the line in 2019 after MTA officials discovered anti-Nazi stickers (which nonetheless partially displayed swastikas) on the train.
Talia Jane, a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter of Jewish descent, collated some of the photos into a Twitter thread following Liz’s interactions. The tweets have been shared 1,300 times in the week since she posted them. The photos of the suspected “L Train Nazi” have been viewed nearly 800,000 times.
“People began to notice similar tags of a similar marker and similar handwriting style,” Jane told the New York Jewish Week. “It became assumed that there was one person behind these recurring tags.”
When asked by this reporter about the graffiti, the New York Police Department said “there is nothing on file” about these markings.
MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults told the New York Jewish Week in an emailed statement that “there is no place for acts of hate of any kind, including anti-Semitic vandalism, in the subway system.”
“When observed, offensive materials are rapidly removed,” Shults said. “The MTA continues to be at the forefront of public service campaigns that promote respect and tolerance for all riders.”
Efforts to find the person behind the graffiti have been coalescing offline as well. Elsa Waithe, 34, a comedian from East New York, first spotted the “1488” graffiti in November 2021 at the L train Livonia stop. Waithe covered it with a sticker, but kept seeing similar graffiti nearby. Now, Waithe is putting up flyers at stations across the L line that say “#SubwayNazi” and display the man’s face.
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
“Be on the lookout,” the flyer reads. “This man was recently caught writing Nazi tags in NYC subways.”
“I personally plan to put these posters up every weekend, at least for a month or two, just so he knows that people know him now,” Waithe told the New York Jewish Week. “My friend asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘Essentially, Nazi-hunting.’”
Waithe said they made it their “mission” to always cover up the “1488” tags with a sticker, but noticed that others began posting pictures of the tag at stations approaching Manhattan — including Myrtle-Wycoff, Grand Street and eventually Union Square.
“He was putting them in very obvious places,” Waithe said. “Livonia is right next to public housing. This is a Black neighborhood. It pissed me off that someone would threaten the community. That’s what this is, a threat.”
Waithe feels that coded numbers such as 1488 and 1352, a racist anti-Black slogan, allow the perpetrator to hide Nazi messaging in plain sight.
“If he had put a swastika, we all know what that is,” Waithe said. “This is just a coded swastika. It’s the same exact thing, it’s just not as widely known, so he can put it and be discreet, or say it means something else. There is some plausible deniability.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, New York State ranked seventh nationally in the number of white supremacist propaganda incidents in 2021.
“No one wants a Nazi in their neighborhood,” Waithe said. “We all ride this train, we all live in this city. Is there a network [of activists]? No. It’s just concerned citizens.”
Sophie Ellman-Golan, spokesperson for the Jewish progressive group Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, commended the efforts of the people who are keeping “tabs on the subway Nazi.”
“This particular Nazi has spent years trying to make Jews, Black people and all marginalized groups feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on the subway,” Ellman-Golan told the New York Jewish Week. “But it’s Nazis who should feel uncomfortable and unwelcome — on the subway and in our city and state.”