Art view             Paulette Thenhaus


Boxcar graffiti


Is it art? you ask. Boxcar graffiti, that is. Start with what it definitely is. Graffiti. Scribbles on something that belongs to someone else. Of course, if it is a paid scribble, no matter how boring the design, it is legitimate design, but we're talking illegitimate.

Graffiti is as old as time. That handprint on the early cave wall might be considered the first graffiti mark. It has a long history from stylus of Pompeii to the chalk doodles on sidewalks to sprayed New York subways. The chalk symbols made by hobos on telephone poles are really graffiti. A chalk-made cat signifies a kind woman who might give a brother hobo a bowl of soup. Communication is what it is all about. Messages stating, "I was here."

Those older looking, simple signatures on boxcars derive from the 1970's forward and are monikers for railroad workers themselves. Some include a cartoon-like drawing, for example Bozo Texino's cowboy hatted face with cigarette.

Freight Train Graffiti, written by Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland and Ian Sattler, published in 2006, is dedicated to boxcar art. Not only is the photography and layout lush, but the text is engaging. Not only does it chronicle spray painted cars across the United States, it also interviews dozens of “Kings,” the most accomplished ”writers.” It brings the entire culture of graffiti to life for the layman. A glossary defines the language of the writer such as “bulls” (the railroad police) and “toy” (an inexperienced writer). Copying another writer's style or technique is called “biting.” And personal style and territory is what it is all about.

Just flip through the book and catch the hip-hop rhythm which is cultural cousin to popular graffiti. And if you didn't know, yes, graffiti is now a movement with a highly fashionable culture of its own. By 1980, graffiti writers such as Futura, Doneli, Revolt and Zephyr where showing their canvases in galleries all over New York City. Back in the 1990's several graffiti writers and their associates started clothing lines that made their way to the malls. Something interesting ... ln 1984 graffiti art got a boost as part of Nancy Reagan's "Say No to Drugs" campaign. Thousands of school children received booklets with spray artist Zephyr's design on the cover. It was her attempt to reach the streets. No doubt the bright and bold spray design captured the imaginations of the nation’s children more than pedantic text.

So a few questions you might ask come to mind. Let me guess ...

Where did boxcar graffiti originate?

Though Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern graffiti, New York is the first place graffiti was used on trains. Credit for painting the first whole freight car is given to Crayone, from the Bay Area in 1986. He painted it because there was no subway to paint.

Are there any female writers?

Well, since monikers are asexual, it is difficult to tell male from female. But there are probably far fewer female than male. What I did find in the book was that Shen was the first female to do a piece on a freight train. Also, Pink (Paulette) has her moniker and color on trains that have come through town.

Graffiti and the Internet?

In September of 1994 "Art Crimes" found a home on the Internet. By 1999 it boasted more than 3,000 international images.

Isn't it vandalism?

It can be viewed as a crime by a subculture rebelling against authority. Freight Train Graffiti puts it this way: “The culture evolved from egotistic vandalism into legitimate application of art.” Even so, Chicago banned the sale of spray paint.

What's the difference in gang graffiti and boxcar graffiti?

The difference, besides the quality of work, is that gangs use graffiti to identify territory and control it. "Bombers" go out on the street (or boxcar) with no other purpose than to write their names on everything.

So, back to the original question: Is it art?

Freight train art has a documented history. It's definitely a form of communication that moves across the landscape. Most spray writers are self-taught or taught by the generation before them, and their graphics are very refined in technique. (Yes, there are "generations" of spray writers, and they think of themselves that way.) It is a cultural phenomenon that is now international. Sooo, yes, I do think it is an art form ... an urban art form.

When you are sitting in your car bemoaning the endless train, lean back, relax and maybe you'll get a free show. One that comes to you from across the nation. Remember, art isn't always about good taste. Sometimes it's about breaking the rules. Colorfully.