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The Art of Vandalism

by Allen Abel for "Saturday Night" magazine

 

Trainpainters work at night, trespassing in rail yards. They go by code names to shield themselves from arrest. This is their world.

Canada's most beautiful vandal is a fallen angel with filthy hands. He is one of about thirty-five such criminals across this country, white males in their twenties, who obsessively, furtively, jubilantly practise what they - and some who see their creations - hold to be a form of art.

The vandal and his accomplices haunt train yards and paint elaborate graffiti on the boxcars. They do this because it is illegal, because walls and alleys are boring, because it unites them with hobo tradition. They do it because freight cars move.

"Every artist dreams of having a show in Chicago," he says. "Well, I have a show in Chicago every day, and in New York, and in all the small towns along the tracks." You may look at these photographs - some are of his work - and decide that this is true art; or the opposite, that it is bestial sabotage. Maybe you will want him and the others locked up, sent away, attached for damages, paddled (they tried to pass a law allowing that in California), forced to scour the rolling stock.

I have pledged not to identify him - or any of his peers - although naming, "monikering," tagging, proclaiming an invented identity is the nucleus of his endeavour. In public, the Canadians who paint freights prefer to be known by a single, choleric noun: CASE, FLOW, TAKE, CHROME, FEAR. Or a maudlin adjective: ALONE, OTHER, SOLO, HIGH. They baptize themselves into brotherhoods with puffed-up titles like "Those Damn Vandals" and "Bombs Away."

They like to trespass in the Canadian Pacific or Canadian National or Burlington Northern yards in Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto, or whistle stops in between, to floridly paint a boxcar or a tanker or an auto-rack overnight, alone or with their crew, identifying themselves by moniker and telephone area code (FLOW 514 from Montreal; OTHER 604 when he's in Vancouver).

Then, they send it off with a benediction, that someone might spot the train in Charlotte or Saskatchewan or West Texas and notify the creator with a message on another rail car:

HEY BOYS, IT'S OTHER OUT EAST - I'LL BE BACK.

Alternatively, a painter may forgo a major production and simply move rapidly from car to car to car, tagging each with a small logo or ornamental signature, keeping score in a notebook of the serial numbers of the wagons he hits. An American man who signs himself "The Solo Artist" is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over twenty years. For larger works that can cover an entire seventy-foot hopper or tanker, a lifetime count of 300 pieces marks a man for the defacers' Hall of Fame.

Some of the painters I've met are the sons of bankers and university professors. Most can cite chapter and verse of the Criminal Code, and several have been fined, or briefly jailed, under section 430 (1): "WILFUL AND FORBIDDEN ACTS IN RESPECT OF CERTAIN PROPERTY. Every one commits mischief who wilfully (a) destroys or damages property; (b) renders property dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective."

Quite a few have been to art school. Most work afternoons, invisibly, as Mike or Art or Steve or Joel, their fever dissipated in the daylight world.

The Internet is rife with photographs of their "productions" and "end-to-ends." (Webmasters give these domains such names as "Visual Cancer" and "Visual Orgasm.") Some trainpainters add their e-mail addresses to their pieces, so that anyone spotting a car they have bombed can instantly report its whereabouts. Occasionally, legitimate profit comes when they are asked to co-opt their creativity into a civic mural, or design a T-shirt, or colour a canvas for a gallery wall.

They spend the money on markers and spray cans. Lacking cash, the compulsion is so strong, they'll steal whatever they need.

The beautiful vandal I am talking about is in a wheelchair. A train crushed him when he was a teenager; he won't stand or walk again. His moniker is the universal symbol for wheelchair parking with a railroad track running through it. It is painted in white, a foot or so high, on about 5,000 of North America's 1.6 million freight cars.

Now he is twenty-four. His hair is already greying, fingernails blackened, eyes bottomless. He tells me, "I'm in a league of my own, 'cause of my predicament."

The urge is still in him. Friends carry him down to the yards. Last spring, he rode a boxcar across the country. Getting on, getting off, he would hand his chair to an accomplice and climb to it.

"We thought, if our art can move around this system, why can't we?" he says.

"Do you envy the hoboes of the Great Depression?" I ask him.

"That's not envy," he replies. "That's empathy. I've spent excessive hours talking to tramps in the hobo jungles, searching for the meaning of what that was about. It was about hardship, man."

He believed, when he was younger, that graffiti was a deposition of American ghetto frustration and creativity. In Canada, short on slums and grimness, it was merely copycat crime.

"Then, trains started bringing the art in," he says. "All of a sudden, in a stale environment where there was no other graffiti, I would see a piece and think, 'Holy shit! Where's that from?'

"It became an issue of synchronicity - being around at the right time, when a car happened to be passing by. There was that sense of wonder - where are these guys from? - and I built this chaos theory of it. All this art, moving around chaotically, where none of the artists are in control of where it goes.

"Think of it, man - you're sitting in your car at some crossing on the Prairies and all of a sudden this art comes rolling past you, and you happen to look up and you see this thing and you have about half a second to see it and you'll never get another chance.

"It's just synchronicity - that's why seeing a piece on a freight is special, as opposed to seeing a piece on a wall where someone tells you where to go to see it.

"That's my favourite theme - synchronicity. Do you know how to increase your synchronicity?" he asks.

"Increase your awareness."

The two men who conduct me into the Montreal freight yards could not be more opposite. One is a self-professed wastrel, defined by his apartness; the other is groomed and Spartan. One is the son of a physics professor; the other doesn't want his father's occupation revealed.

The latter is part of an established crew that bombs walls and abandoned factories as well as freights. He calls himself FLOW, because as a child he had a fascination with wolves and FLOW is wolf spelled backwards. He is twenty-eight, muscular, soft-spoken, a non-drinker, he says, non-smoker, no drugs. He has hit about 1,500 boxcars this year alone with his moniker of a diesel engine coming at you down the tracks. He has model trains at home.

"If I didn't have the job I have now," FLOW says, "I'd love to work on trains. This is where the new generation of rail fans is coming from - from graffiti."

The other man is slender, twenty-seven, unkempt, bushy, matter-of-fact when he professes that his best work is done alone, after midnight, with forty ounces or more of strong malt liquor in him; a "solitary committer," as in Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He, too, loves trains - he rides freights and even buys tickets on VIA and AMTRAK, just to be moving, to stare from the window, high on awareness.

He used to sign SHAMUS (his real middle name) but changed to OTHER because it suited the personality he was trying to create. His railway art is unlike anything I have ever seen, anywhere - faces, haunted, downcast, tormented, melting as if they were waxen, heads four feet high on tankers and hoppers, painted freehand, spontaneously, often accompanied by verse:

SHE LEFT ME ALONE
ON THE WINDOW SILL
I LOOKED AT THE PAST
SO FAR BACK
TO THE PEAKS OF
CHURCHES.
AND THE LIGHTS IN
EVERY ONES WINDOWS
LOOKED SO WARM,
SO COMFORTABLE.
ANY LIFE BUT MINE.

Friends have tried to steer him into a university fine-arts program - he has taken a few courses - but he detests the classroom setting ("I don't really fit the school thing") and fears the critique that inevitably comes when art stands still.

"It seems like such an obvious thing," OTHER says, walking toward the yards. "Put your name on something and see where it goes."

"When you paint a wall," says FLOW, who has painted hundreds, "everybody can stand there as long as they want and see all the mistakes you made."

We hike south of Central Station, cross the Lachine Canal from downtown Montreal, pass the CN police depot, scramble up and down the loose, weedy embankments, and end up under the Victoria Bridge. About 300 freight cars, mostly greasy black tankers and corrugated Hanjin intermodal containers from Korea that graffiti artists rarely bother with, are lined up in a skein of engineless trains.

Some of the cars have been sitting here for quite some time - a monumentally troubling work on a grey hopper labelled OTHER AS AN EARLESS SPERM was painted weeks before; he is delighted to show it off, and dismayed that it has not yet been moved down the rails. It is a self-portrait of the science professor's son, with the side of his face leaking away.

From another of his freight cars:

JUST ANOTHER HOPELESS HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT WHO DOES NOTHING BUT HANG OUT IN TRAIN YARDS AND PAINT AND PAINT AND FOR WHAT? WELL, JUST CAUSE IT FEELS SO GOOD.

"I'm not crazy about this term 'artist' for what I do," FLOW says, methodically chalking his moniker on a succession of CN boxcars, while sleek VIA passenger coaches and thunderous switching engines and motor traffic on an overpass roar by us. He turns toward OTHER, who is sketching a series of angular aliens holding pitchforks, and some warped teddy bears and pussycats - venally cute.

"He's an artist," FLOW says. "He can draw faces and stuff. I don't think my stuff belongs on canvas. But his does."

"Why do you do this?" I ask.

"I don't know why I still do it," FLOW replies. "Maybe I'm just a loser?" In answer to the same question, OTHER hands me a photograph of a soliloquy he painted on a grey chemical tanker:

IT SEEMS THAT NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME COMING DOWN IN THE YARDS HERE. MY GIRLFRIEND TOLD ME MAYBE ITS TIME TO HANG UP THE PAINT AND MARKERS, THIS WEEKEND. MY PARENTS THINK I'M CRAZY, ECCENTRIC AT THE BEST. MY FRIENDS TELL ME TO PAINT CANVASES. FUCK I DON'T KNOW. THE AIR SO FRESH DOWN HERE AT NIGHT, IT'S SO QUIET FOR A CITY, I FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE IN FREIGHT YARDS THAN AT HOME. THIS IS MY LIFE - THIS IS MY LOVE - WHY CAN'T THIS BE ACCEPTED?

"It's all about movement," OTHER says. "Message in a bottle, but the bottle always comes back."

They teach me the craft and the code. Never paint over the serial numbers of the cars; the workers need them. A green Burlington Northern boxcar whose number begins with 249 is headed for its home in Vancouver. If you hop a freight, huddle in the end of a Wheat Pool grain hopper; bring water and a sweater. Lie to the cops; you're just here to take pictures. Never lie to your friends. Lie low.

I walk away as the two men attend to their industry, and study the emblems and the signatures on the cars: HAPPY FR8s; ROCKIN' ON STEEL; COSE from Winnipeg; CYDE from Switzerland. I am amused, intrigued, a little afraid - I feel as though I am standing in a canyon between skyscrapers that could jolt into life at any moment.

When we leave, walking north through the derelict streets, we pass a shop that has placed, in its windows, prints of Van Gogh sunflowers and starry nights. I ask if the men consider this to be true beauty.

"If I was going to buy a piece of art," FLOW shrugs, "I'd get something with trains in it."

There's a rail line that slides behind Gastown in Vancouver, towards a dock called the Ballantine Pier. A sculptor named George Pratt has his studio down here, and he has erected a plinth inscribed with a Biblical quotation from the book of Jesus Son of Sirach. The quotation praises carpenters, engravers, artisans. It could be the anthem of the graffiti writers and their belief that they embellish the blankness of their towns: "All these trust to their hands: and every one is wise in his work. Without these cannot a city be inhabited... . They shall not be sought for in publick counsel, nor sit high in the congregation: they shall not sit on the judges' seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment: they cannot declare justice and judgment; and they shall not be found where parables are spoken. But they will maintain the state of the world, and [all] their desire is in the work of their craft."

I am on my way to meet TAKE5, another of Canada's most respected rail-yard fiends. Early for the appointment, I wander along the tracks, as I now find myself doing everywhere I go, looking for the wheelchair logo, or The Solo Artist's flourish, or the work of OTHER and FLOW.

TAKE5, an ebullient young man in a CP ball cap, meets me at a beery, down-market hotel. His work is to the expected standard - his own handle in huge, elaborate letters, which he paints in vibrant colours on the sides of worthy freights. He does not attempt to imitate OTHER's mad, moody portraits - no one could.

"One night I bombed the roof of my high school," he says, beginning his story. "The principal came out and said, 'Aren't you TAKE5, who's been doing graffiti all over town?'

"I said, 'Oh, no, sir - TAKE5 is a girl. And then I said to him, 'There's nobody else up here, sir - tell me, what do you really think of it?'