Writers Take to the Rails
Written by Ian Sattler & Shawna Kenney
The New York City subway system is arguably the primary catalyst for all modern graffiti. Every writer and crew’s dreams and perceptions have been filtered through the lens of that ’70s and ’80s heyday in some way. While graffiti has reportedly been seen on the streets of New York since the late ’60s, it took firm hold of the subway in 1970, with trains showcasing writers’ names throughout the city. Legend took root almost immediately, as the work of these vandals began appearing in mass media and imprinting itself on the millions of tourists riding the largest transit system in the world while visiting “the Big Apple.” There was so much documentation of who was writing and how they were doing it that the ripple effect continues to this day.
The Waged War on Train Graffiti
The Metropolitan Transit Authority declared war on the form in 1971, with aggressive efforts to eradicate graffiti continuing on through the ’80s. 1989 proved a monumental year: After trying increased security, buffing and other anti-graffiti tactics, Mayor Ed Koch finally claimed a victory with his “Clean Train Movement,” in which tagged trains were taken out of service immediately. The New York subways, which had long been the heart of American graffiti and vital to writers around the world, was now totally devoid of the art form. The epicenter of a cultural event was gone. Temporarily derailed, writers headed back to the streets and expanded the scene by changing direction.
In the mid ’70s, writers occasionally stumbled upon freight trains while walking the tracks en route to paint. Freights were seen as transitory places to catch tags on the way to something bigger, until the huge viewership potential in having one’s work travel across the country was recognized. Freight-train graffiti in New York has been documented to as early as 1974, while the first “whole car” freight painted top to bottom dates to San Francisco in 1986. There were small but important forays into the area for the rest of the decade in places ranging from Chicago to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. But when New York subway artists and living legends IZ THE WIZ, SACH and ZEPHYR took to painting freight trains, it helped to validate the entire concept in the eyes of writers across the country.
When graffiti writers were finally chased out of the subway tunnels and yards of New York, a seed was spread across America, this time carried on a different kind of train. Freight trains had been the backbone of the United States in terms of building commerce and culture, and now they would take graffiti from a city-centric activity to a truly national phenomenon.
The Early Graffiti On Trains
America’s love affair with trains goes back to its early days, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) was chartered in 1827 and put into service by 1830. Many miles of track were laid across the country after that, but achieving the task was brutal. Thousands of workers, most of them Chinese immigrants working for meager wages, braved treacherous weather and terrain, ultimately connecting the East Coast to the West with completion of the Transcontinental Railroad by 1869.
Hobo monikers, graffiti and rail-worker markings arrived in conjunction with the end of the Civil War and the final stages of the Transcontinental Railroad during the late 1800s. The rails were vital to the post-war economy, and scores of the nomadic poor clung to them looking for work and sometimes a purpose in life as well. The railroads became intertwined in everything that was America. In 1866, the Rocky Mountain News went so far as to boast that “the one moral, the one remedy for every evil, social, political, financial and industrial, the one immediate vital need of the entire Republic, is the Pacific Railroad.”
The first markings to appear on boxcars were made by railroad workers themselves — coded messages written to one another in chalk and pencil containing specific cargo information, i.e. arrival and departure times, weights, dimensions. By the late 1800s, train hopping had become a cheap but illegal way of traveling for many people, creating a transient culture with its own set of symbols known as the “Hobo Code,” a way of communicating with others in the community regarding safety, dry (alcohol-free) towns, water conditions and like-minded souls in the area. Train hoppers would write their pseudonyms or drawings on the trains with solid paint sticks or industrial crayons, a phenomenon immortalized by Jack London in his book The Road: “ 'Monicas' are the nom-de-rails that hoboes accept or assume when thrust upon them by their fellows.”Bozo Texino, one of the earliest of these monikers, was created in the 1920s by J.H. McKinley, an early-20th-century trainman stationed in Laredo, Texas, who drew his graphic signature as the simple face of a pipe-smoking character sporting a peaked hat with an infinity-shaped brim. The name and symbol perpetuated a mystery as to the identity of its creator and ultimately inspired decades of ever-changing pictorial personas.
The effect of the massive rail infrastructure, second to none in the world, went beyond commerce, as writers, musicians and artists were influenced by the interactions and themes that emerged via the shared experience of lives impacted by the railroad. Expression of ideas, art and even a national identity were formed and then disseminated along the seemingly endless tracks.
Birth of a New Subculture - Freight Train Graffiti
Pre-Internet and before major magazine distribution, graffiti writers had no way of connecting with one another outside of their own cities. When a few writers from the West Coast were fortunate enough to travel to New York, they exchanged stories with their East Coast counterparts about seeing one another’s work on cross-country freights. With seven major U.S. railroads and over 500 regional and short lines, plus connections to the Canadian National Railway, recognition of the enormous potential audience sparked activity on both coasts, and a North American freight-train graffiti movement was born.
Early leaders in the form were quick to step up and become noticed through new techniques and unwavering dedication. Writers began to refer to themselves as “freight writers” (rather than “graffiti writers”) and adjusted their style of painting to better suit the train’s surface. They began to shape their letterforms around the angles of the freight car and paid particular attention to creating pieces that would be easily recognizable from far away while moving at high speeds. In addition, they paid special attention to anchoring their work to the bottom line of the cars, not leaving their pieces “floating” as was common when painting walls. Unlike walls or subway cars, which could be painted over by the next morning, many a freight would simply move on to a new city, paintings intact.
As the popularity of freights grew, the pieces being painted on trains also began to evolve. Many more writers began painting the entire length of a car from top to bottom, which became known as a “whole car.” Oftentimes it would take between 25 and 30 cans of paint to complete such a feat.
Freight writers soon began recording how many trains they had painted by posting numbers next to individual pieces on each train. The desire to be “all-city” was replaced by the idea of going “all-country.” This soon became known within the scene as “chasing numbers” or “going for numbers.” There has always been a sense of competition in graffiti, and integrating numbers into freights upped the ante. Writers began to set goals for themselves, counting who could paint the most cars within a certain time frame. Many writers began bombing heavily to paint as many cars as possible. Some were writers who respectively have thousands of cars still running to this day. Those who achieved the most respect and visibility were the ones who had learned to use a combination of complex pieces and bombing.
The Art of Train Watching
The practice of watching for graffiti as freights roll by is known as “benching.” The term is borrowed from the New York subway generation and the legendary “Writers Bench,” a subway station on 149th Street where writers congregated to exchange stories and critique graffiti from several different lines as they rolled through the station. Benching in the freight world took on new scope, as it was now possible to do so from countless vantage points in every town, as opposed to literally one bench. Benching offered proof as to what was rolling out along the lines and for many writers was an incredibly important aspect of the lifestyle.
By the mid ’90s, an underground graffiti publishing movement had grown, providing a space for writers to network through another form of print. Many added photography to the benching and going-for-numbers game, in an effort to contribute and connect. Like pen pals, a writer in one town agreed to send photos of pieces on the train rolling through in exchange for photos from another writer in a distant city. The labor-intensive process involved choosing what to shoot on a limited roll of film — often working in dim or poor lighting — getting the photos professionally developed and mailed off to other writers, then waiting and hoping for returns.
The Freight Train Graffiti Boom
As freight scenes developed throughout the country, organized crews specific to the medium formed. Unlike conventional groups, which tended to keep to localized membership, many freight crews came to include members from all over the United States. In 1992, the influential NETWORK was formed, with the aim of having a charter member in every city. Their early roster included writers from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, D.C., New Jersey, Florida and Atlanta. NETWORK grew rapidly as members instantly reaped the benefits of sharing insider information about tracking trains and trading photos from coast to coast.
Freight Train Graffiti crews were soon established all over the United States. New York had the BFK crew, while some previously existing California crews like ICR and CBS now also focused on freights. BA, who operated in Baltimore and San Francisco, also broadened their scope, while FREIGHT SLAYERS from Florida and BOXSTARZ from California and Arizona covered the West and then grew nationally. This increased interaction between writers begat advancements in technique, strategy, competition and reputation, and the early to mid ’90s are often considered to be the first golden age of freight-train graffiti.
Challenges presented themselves from inside and outside the graffiti community. Similar to what happened with the New York subway, the massive volume of freight graffiti led to an equally massive pushback from the companies running the train cars. Freight yards are protected under federal laws for interstate commerce, and any amount of damage to property over $1,000 is considered a felony. Many companies estimated the cost of repair for any train with graffiti on it to be at least four figures, keeping all incidents on a felony level. As security increased over the years, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, the sheer number of humans a writer might encounter grew, as every major railroad now had its own police force. Commonly referred to as “bulls,” railroad police protect the yards from trespassing, theft and vandalism. Local police patrolling around the perimeter of yards could also present a major obstacle. Planning how to paint without running into opposition became part of the process for any serious writer. Being ready to literally “run for it” was such an experience and rush that all freight writers prepared for it and many came to see it as another step on the path to glory.
In addition to the police, writers had to be aware of the railroad workers themselves. The practice of “stamping,” sometimes referred to as “blocking,” developed as workers’ visual response to writers painting over informatory numbers delineating load limits, destinations, ownership and other information. Railroads paint blocks of paint over any graffiti interfering with this system, resulting in a “stamp” over the piece. Some writers chose to deliberately avoid painting over the numbers, while others might repaint numbers above their pieces, in an effort to avoid being blocked or buffed entirely.
While railroad employees don’t have the legal authority to detain a vandal they find in the yard, it only takes a few seconds to radio security. At times, companies like Amtrak have even offered rewards to engineers who reported graffiti artists they spotted along the railway. Sometimes rail workers have even taken it upon themselves to communicate to the graffiti writers that they won’t stand for the intrusion by painting threatening messages next to their buffing. “Get a job” was one popular written retort. In the late ’90s, a worker in a Philadelphia freight yard used the “crossing out” method of spray-painting an “X” over graffiti writers’ letters. Such opponents of graffiti learned that the quickest way to hurt the writers is to literally mess with their artwork.
Blood, Sweat, and Trains
There are obvious physical dangers of painting trains — 50-mile-per-hour freights barreling through, weather, barbed wire, dogs, bugs and more. Writers have been maimed and killed in efforts to “get up,” yet sometimes the threat comes from within their own ranks. There is inherent competition among graffiti writers themselves, and the world of freights is no exception. Experienced writers must protect safe spaces to paint, as exposing them to indiscriminate writers who leave behind evidence or breech unspoken social contracts by painting over others’ work can make a once-quiet spot become dangerous.
With so much at risk and so many hurdles, the etiquette for freight-train graffiti continued to be refined. Like railroad workers, astute writers systematically learned the different freight lines and routes, names of different car types, which surfaces were easiest to paint and which trains traveled the most frequently. This knowledge was shared with their crews, and soon there was a complex system guaranteeing maximum exposure.
Painting these cars leveled the playing field for writers across the country, and when combined with new styles, vandal etiquette and new means of communication, it led to an awareness and accessibility that graffiti had never achieved before. Freight-train graffiti exponentially expanded the audience for writers, opening many new eyes to the concept of graffiti art along the way, just as a new era in pop culture was looking to appropriate anything seen as authentically crossing genre boundaries. Graffiti now enjoys a heritage nearly as rich as its steel canvases. And much like the freights that carry so many writers’ names to far-reaching corners of the continent, this marriage of art and culture has never stopped rolling along.
Images (from top to bottom):
ZEPHYR and IZ THE WIZ, Early '90s Photo by IZ.
Some of the more up writers on the freights throughout the '90s Photos by MYTH, LEP, MONE, HEAT, CON, SICK 156, MUCH, JASE, KEY, KING 157 & SMITH.
SANE by SMITH and CYCLE Photo by CYCLE.
Photos courtesy of MBER, Dave Schubert & FAVES.
Dissed by other writers and yard workers, stamped, buffed and chased. 1990s to mid-2000s Photos by MYTH, CON, KING 157, BIG 5, ADGE, CENSE, FAVES, ERUPTO, Dave Schubert & NACE.