Charting a history of any art movement that was at first considered subversive, in contrast to normative social tropes and mores, and generally unacceptable, could always start from the underground or the social margins. Train graffiti history is not unique in this sense. Underground here is both literal and conceptual. This type of graffiti developed in subway systems, but also on the outskirts of big cities, where traffic nods were situated. Underground is also a site for marginal, subversive and subcultural practice. Not necessarily situated below the ground level, this conceptual underground operates as a countercultural location of diverse practices regarding the sanctioned and normative ones. Train graffiti belong to this underground and writing about their history includes also writing about the contrasting and often clashing social realities of big cities or culture.
A quick look back at distant past, we see the first Christian symbols on walls painted in Roman catacombs, when the Christianity was still persecuted by Roman authorities as unacceptable and deplorable religion. Starting from below, visual expression of a religious belief soon surfaced on the walls of basilicas, following the Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity as one of the religions of Roman Empire. Catacombs in this case served as the sites where new visual iconography developed around different social practices, beliefs, and among a marginalized group of people. Graffiti history similarly starts from the margins, and from below as well. Perhaps the most mentioned site of the development of graffiti art is the New York subway system. Tagging erupted in this isolated environment in late 1960s and 1970s and somehow reflected the problematic and troubling world unwinding above the ground. Sides of freight trains coming and going from the outskirts of big cities were another canvas for urban youth expression, although graffiti scribbled on them in the beginning often came from railroad workers.
Train graffiti thus emerged from two locations and from two types of trains, both linked with specific social and cultural settings of the second half of the 20th century. From utilitarian purposes to expressions of discontent or subcultural identities, they form a distinct group in graffiti art, history, and the development of graffiti styles.
When graffiti started to bourgeon in New York metro system in late 1960s and 1970s they added to a general feeling of insecurity for some of the citizens. Having scribbles freely applied on public property with apparently no punishment seemed to contribute to the overall sense of lawlessness that plagued the metropolis in this period. To understand better the appearance of graffiti on metro cars, it is important to comprehend the cultural climate that surrounded it as well. New York in the 1970s was by many considered a dangerous place. As Edmund White explains: “the city was edgy and dangerous, …women carried Mace in their purses, …even men asked the taxi driver to wait until they’d crossed the 15 feet to the front door of their building.” Living in the climate of economic recession that had hit particularly hard the Big Apple, where 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost leaving over one million households dependent on welfare, the urban reality was grim and hopeless. What were the kids to do in such circumstances?
As Sasha Jenkins writes:”Back when New York didn’t have much, the kids had to figure out what to do with themselves. This was before video games, before that black hole we call the World Wide Web emerged. …What do bored big-city kids do when they’re looking for swashbuckling adventures inside a concrete jungle? They write their names inside metro cars and, eventually, on the exteriors of said trains.” This included jokes, names, formal displays of lettering proficiency, epigrams, social commentary, and even threats. Among the creatives who marked the scene were TAKI 183, PHASE 2, RASTA, MACKE, FUTURA, BLADE, BILL ROCK, LADY PINK, DAZE, JON ONE, and KEL. Bill Rock was the lead of the Rolling Thunder Writers crew and once did a whole railway coach with Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Lady Pink was the leading female figure of the graffiti scene. She grew up in Queens and would sneak out in the night to meet with friends in metro tunnels where she would spray her murals. Daze would work in rail yards, and, as he confessed later, he went through many trials and errors, and even got close to being caught a few times. Jon One was inspired to start spraying tags after he saw the works of others on trains while commuting to school. He would try to imitate them and filled his notebooks with their tags before venturing out himself. Kel painted every night after railroad workers would finish their jobs for the day and hanged out with the members of graf community at Writer’s Bench in Bronx. After decisive actions against graffiti by officials who started persecuting writers and removing tags, murals and throw-ups from the metro, including the introduction of new trains that could be easily cleaned from aerosol spray, and all with the aim to show to the citizens that they are still in control of the city, in the early 1980s graffiti scene moved away from the subway, with many creatives finding freight trains an adequate substitute for metro cars.
Starting in the time of Great Depression, more than a quarter of a million teenagers left their homes and decided to roam the country in search for better life by jumping on boxcars and riding around America. Their search often became lost in the long rides where the aim and the purpose of these travels frequently got dissolved in the sheer allure of freedom felt on the rails. As René Champion, one of the boys who rode boxcars stated decades later:”The sight of that train, the smell and sound of it makes me cry. It reminds me of the freedom of the road… I would have gone wherever it led me, its whistle a siren song that reaches deep down and pulls you along.” Freight transports, which regularly crisscrossed America delivering wheat, fuel and other goods around the country, exuded their appeal as a cultural symbol of unreined youth on later generations who used them as sites for urban art. Their accessibility and broader cultural significance continued to attract equally open-minded spirits who traded travel for aerosol cans.
Since the era of the New York subway graffiti ended in 1980s, the freight train graffiti movement became the widespread part of the graffiti subculture. It is even contended that it forms a subculture within a subculture, as many graffiti creatives operate exclusively as train graffiti authors. They do not participate in street-level bombing, and usually forgo production of wall murals. First freight trains graffiti appeared in mid to late 1970s. The names that stand out from this early group of creatives are PNUT and TRACY 168 in the Big Apple, and SUROC and BRAZE in Philadelphia. However, this practice did not become widespread until the mid-1980s when New York officials introduced new type of metro car that could be easily cleaned of graffiti. New York writers that turned to freight trains in this period were SENTO, CAVS, CAVE, among others, while in Los Angeles and Bay Area operated RISKY, POWER, DREAM, PICASSO and CHARLIE/PORN/OCHO. However, this early pioneers did not concentrate solely on doing freight trains, as would be the case for the freight train creatives in 1990s. The number of them is so large, and continued to increase over years that it is almost impossible to name them all. Some of them are FREE5, MAYHEM, KET MTK, CHROME MSG, WANE and HUSH. Before the sides of freight trains were taken over by urban creatives, railroad workers wrote first graffiti on them, which included “arrival and departure times, weights, and other information about the car’s contents for the benefit of their colleagues in distant cities that would be unloading them.”
Train graffiti form an important part in graffiti history, which in itself is intriguing enough. Linked to American cultural setting this practice developed in different cities and on different locations but it seems to follow the trajectory started in New York in the late 1960s. The general disillusionment of the youth provoked by economic crisis, loss of jobs and unemployment that seemed to put the city under a strain, set train graffiti to become an expression of identity; of narrow, neighborhood belonging, and general revolt against the failing system. From first tags in the subway to freight trains, train graffiti mark a turning point in the development of urban art that would grow to dominate in the numbers of practitioners around the world. From underground to gallery spaces, graffiti grow into respectable practice, while train graffiti - still impossible to capture, preserve, or sell - remain the unique expression of this art form born out of rebellion and discontent.
Editors’ Tip: Freight Train Graffiti
The book is the definitive history collection of this vibrant art form. Until now there was almost no written insight into this vast subculture, which inspires fascination. As dazzling as the art it celebrates, the book is packed with 1,000 full-color illustrations and features in-depth interviews with more than 125 train artists and "writers." Hundreds of never-before-seen photographs span the style's evolution, while the authoritative text from an all-star team of authors provides unprecedented perspective, including the first-ever written history of "monikers," the precursors of graffiti, developed by hobos and rail workers to communicate en route. This book will inspire anyone who has ever been interested in graffiti.
Featured images: Dondi White & Zephyr - Heroin Kills Train Car; King Robbo & Drax WD - Merry Christmas Train. Photo Drax WD; King Robbo - Early Train Graffiti. Images via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.