Scribbled in a hurry on almost every advertisement in almost every New York City subway station are drawings of penises. Hovering, disembodied, they aim into the open, smiling mouths of oblivious supermodels, music legends and movie stars.

Scribbled in a hurry on almost every advertisement in almost every New York City subway station are drawings of penises. Hovering, disembodied, they aim into the open, smiling mouths of oblivious supermodels, music legends and movie stars.

But for the two conjoined circles drawn at one end to indicate testicles, the amorphous shapes would be otherwise unrecognizable as penises. Comic raindrops that sometimes fall from the business end might signify urine, but probably not.

Penis graffiti, in one form or another, has existed around the world for millennia. Nobody’s sure why ancient peoples living 6,000 years ago in what is now Sweden sculpted phalluses from stone. Archeologists recently brushed the dirt off of similar carvings at an Israeli site. Only weeks ago NASA leaked images sent from its Mars rover that depict what’s clearly a monstrous penis drawing pressed into iron-rich Martian soil by the rover’s own wheels.

Nowhere else but in New York, though, can the term “epidemic” appropriately describe the amazing proliferation of penis graffiti. Armies of illustrators must work in shifts to keep NYC’s underground so thoroughly decorated with fresh penises.

I moved to New York the year radio stations played OutKast’s hit single “Hey Ya!” too much. I arrived at Penn Station in autumn, carrying only a backpack; I wasn’t certain I wanted to stay long. First impressions of Manhattan are, for many, formed underground—where penis drawings are everywhere.

Stupid kids, I first thought.

The anonymous penis illustrators are just ugly, like-minded preteens armed with shoplifted backpacks full of shoplifted paint markers. This stealth army, I assumed, hates women. Probably they can’t love, and what little they know about sex, I guessed, must come to these broken individuals from watching too much too-violent pornography.

Their kind of penises are cudgels, really, more than sex organs. To aim them like flying arrows at the faces of America’s sweethearts is just a grade-school-level debasement tactic not worth wondering about. Every turgid creation is intended to disrupt the quiet psychological well-being of middle-class straphangers.

Forcing nervous parents to explain these weird hieroglyphs to innocent children gives the illustrator a thrill. Tainting the New York Experience for heartland tourists traveling by rail between Ground Zero and Times Square, I supposed, feeds a bottomless well of sick pleasure for the misfit army.

Within days of arriving I began to grasp the magnitude of New York’s penis graffiti problem. I dreamed up thousands and thousands of scrawny, wall-eyed, identical-looking boy children who, with bad skin, thick unibrows and buckteeth so wide-set you could push a nickel between them, chuckled deeply at perverted jokes that repeated ad infinitum in their otherwise empty heads.

Maybe a sorcerer in Washington Heights brought one of these dolts to life back in the ’90s or something. And then, frustrated at not being able to keep it from tagging penises everywhere, the sorcerer chopped his homunculus into thousands of pieces with an axe. The magic being strong in this moron, each bloody scrap and bone shard gave rise to one wholly new, out-of-control idiot.

Before long I became desensitized to the sweeping penis-graffiti infection. I commuted daily on a 7 train from Sunnyside Gardens to Midtown, where I transferred to an uptown 4, 5 or 6 on my way to work. Presumably I was flanked the whole way by dick drawings, but I was blind to them.

Even the ads themselves became invisible to the conscious parts of my mind. A poster of, say, Ashton Kutcher’s beautiful face struck me as odd without a cartoonishly enormous dick tattooed on his cheek, dripping whatever onto the front of his shirt.

Something’s missing, I might have thought to myself as I spotted a newly replaced Mama Mia! poster that the Penis Illustrators Army hadn’t gotten to yet—but what?

Across Manhattan, in boardrooms near the clouds at the top of glassy high-rises, a different kind of army—more sophisticated and better funded—works tirelessly.

More than 100 ad agencies (who, together, hire more than 16,000 ad men) scrum for attention in the New York area alone. According to a 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York is home to some of the highest-paid ad executives in the world. As a result, New Yorkers contend with more ads than most people.

Big companies spend billions every year putting ads in your way. According to Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg’s 2005 article “New Ad City,” companies pay $44,000 monthly to post ads in 200 of the city’s 468 subway stations. To push that same product inside the train itself, it takes another monthly payment of $44,000 for just one quarter of the available in-train ad space.

On any given block New Yorkers are likely to see at least a dozen different ads. Irwin Sheftel, who works with the New York billboard company Van Wagner Outdoor Advertising, told Glassberg that visitors to Times Square face “dozens and dozens” of paid advertisements. Sheftel himself “wouldn’t begin to know how to quantify the density of ads in [New York City].”

And, with a flick of the wrist, a single PIA guerilla spoils a $100,000 message.

After a year of living there I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t have a future in the city. I worked full-time in an Upper East Side bakery selling pastries that, on what I was making, I could never have afforded. After paying rent, I had enough left over for pizza and metro cards. In terms of getting by, I suspected that most New Yorkers lived in similarly leaky, precarious conditions.

Beset, like everyone else, by fixed white smiles, clear eyes and perennially youthful celebrity flesh, I began to reconsider my initial judgment of the PIA. Popular TV shows about comfortable people, like Two and a Half Men, said nothing to me about my life. Upcoming releases I’d never see, like Love Actually, poured salt in wounds kept raw by minimum-wage futurelessness.

Judging from their long stares, hunched shoulders and sickly pallor, fellow 7-line commuters didn’t know innocent Christmastime laughter, either.

Corporate tone-deafness brought the lewd products of the PIA’s childish work back into focus for me. Maybe my initial assessment had been unfair. Maybe the PIA is human after all. There might even be women or elderly soldiers in the army of penis illustrators—after all, anyone can join. The minimum physical requirement is that recruits be able to wield a Sharpie, strike hard and fade away without a trace. There is no minimum intelligence quotient. And had I stayed in New York much longer, I may even have enlisted.