home > articles > Train Tags: Beyond Hobo

Train Tags: Beyond Hobo

by Sam Caplan, December 14, 1997

 

Art is unpredictable and may surface nearly anywhere at anytime. The obvious art is easy to spot: framed, generally expensive, located in museums and galleries, and signed by people such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, and Rothko. The unobvious art is more difficult to discover. This art, pinned with the somewhat critical-in-nature term "low art", is generally what lends truth to my opening statement. One may stumble upon this low art in the form of a graffiti mural on the side of an abandoned building, an underground comic 'zine [see below], or perhaps a Train Tag scrawled on the side of a boxcar. In the following paper I will explore the art of train tags, their significance, and promote my assertion that train tags are indeed art. As a means to that end I will examine ideas such as the validity of this illustration as art in the context of the high/low art debate as well as a comparison of this art with traditional definitions; the psychological connections between tagging and establishing a personal sense of permanence and record; the relationship between the American landscape and the tagger's perception of place and stability, and the transient nature of Americans and how this relates to our idea of home and place.

It seems a good idea to state at the onset of this paper that the following thoughts and ideas are, for the most part, derived not from source material on the subject, but rather from areas of related interest. As very little has been written on the subject of train tags there is not source material available to reference. This, however, does not mean that I am providing unsubstantiated fact and opinion. In exploring the subject I found it useful to research the body of work that I perceive to be at least somewhat related to train tags, including graffiti, low art, and train culture. In addition to this, I have found that other subjects fit well within the realm of train tags, including the concepts of identity psychology and fringe art. Finally, I turned to others who also share a common interest in train tags and their artistic and cultural value. To this end I conducted written interviews and other communications with around a dozen people, taggers included, from the United States (with one participant being from Germany).

The obvious starting place in such an exploration is in determining a definition of train tag, as well as establishing criteria of what does and does not constitute a train tag. My definition, which I base on my own observations, research, as well as input from train tag purveyors and aficionados [see below] is: a visual moniker containing a simple picture, signature, date, and optional words, drawn onto the side of a boxcar, usually with chalk or ink. As for criteria, to be considered a legitimate train tag there must exist several repetitions of the same tag on many different boxcars. Furthermore, the tag should not be confused with other boxcar graffiti that doesn't fit the definition. For example, many graffiti artists have painted expansive murals on boxcars, as well as other graffiti writings including gang tags and spontaneous etchings. The essential difference in train tags and these other markings lay primarily in the purpose behind the creation of the writings. Also, train tags are rarely, if ever, written in spray paint.

Tagging is a generic term used to describe the physical act of marking or drawing a simple sketch that identifies an individual or communicates a specific message or meaning. Traceable to the Middle Ages, tagging has always been a popular form of communication among migrant workers and other groups of migratory peoples, such as the Gypsies. In America, tagging proliferated during the Great Depression era as hobos developed a system of markings that communicated specific messages. For example, a sketch of a kitten on a sidewalk or wall in close proximity to a house communicated the message "kind-hearted woman lives here" (a sure sign of a free meal). Another form of tagging proliferated during the 1970's and 80's among inner city youth. In this form of tagging, in which the tag is not a universal symbol but a "stylized signature or logo unique to each graffiti writer" (Lachmann 236) an artist known as a 'tagger' or 'writer' attempts to replicate his or her 'tag' as often as possible in places that are highly visible to the public at large. Through this tagging the artist hopes to gain recognition or fame among his or her peers.

Before addressing the arguments as to whether train tags may be classified as art, it will prove useful to begin examining some examples of train tags, exploring their physical dimensions and surface interpretations. The first, and perhaps most popular example of a contemporary train tag is that of The Solo Artist. This tag is one that I have encountered on nearly every trip to the train yard, and among my group of interviewees the consensus is that his tag is one of the two or three most prolific tags in existence.

Figure 1 (Figure 1) [at left] illustrates the first of two Solo Artist tags. In this sketch the artist has drawn a profile view of a face with sunglasses, a single cloud, his name ("The Solo Artist"), a heart with a name (unreadable), and the date (8/92). It is interesting to note that in the case of The Solo Artist the moniker at times changes to incorporate various background depictions. This tag is typical of the majority of his sketches, as it incorporates only the basic design elements mentioned above. As for deconstructing this sketch, one first notices the profile face with sunglasses. While I have not been able to discover the artist's intended meaning behind this, one suspects that they represent the concealed identity of the artist and his desire for anonymity (this idea of anonymity is a common thread among most train taggers, who are wary of revealing much information about themselves for fear of being rebuked). The signature remains essentially the same from one sketch to another, and consists of "The Solo" on one line, in printed letters, and "Artist" centered beneath, in cursive, with a stylized A, S, and T.

Figure 2 A second tag by The Solo Artist (Figure 2) [at left] incorporates the same profile face with sunglasses, a slight variation of the signature, the date 5/96, and the addition of scenery. This scenery consists of a mountain range with a rising/setting sun directly behind the center mountain, and a series of clouds floating above and behind the mountain and the artist's signature. It is interesting to note that The Solo Artist is one of the only train taggers to alter his tag with the addition of different sketches and depictions (Colossus of Roads being another). The inclusion of the word "artist" in his name accounts for this emphasis on different drawings.

The Rambler of Port Beaumont, Texas is perhaps the most commonly seen train tag in existence today. The artist has been sketching this tag since at least the 1960's, although his city has changed from Houston to Port Beaumont. The Rambler is featured briefly in the book Riding the Rails by Michael Mathers, as he relates a story about getting sick while living in a boxcar in San Bernadino, California. In the feature, The Rambler alludes to himself as "Bill", but no additional personal information is given.

Figure 3The Rambler's tag (figure 3) [at left] depicts a large champagne glass with a shadow mark to indicate a three dimensional space (this appears as a backwards letter "Z"), and seven bubbles rising from the glass that form a triangular pattern (three bubbles on either side with one at the top). Beneath the glass is the date of the tag (2/5/91), and his signature "The Rambler Port Beaumont Texas" (it is interesting to note that on these tags the preposition "of" is sometimes included, sometimes not). This signature is written in a combination of printed and cursive lettering.

 

 

Figure 4A former railyard worker, Herby is another prolific tagger who is credited with tagging over 70,000 boxcars in his 25 year career. Herby's tag (figure 4) [at left] depicts a man sitting/leaning against a palm tree, wearing a sombrero pushed over his head. The figure appears to be sleeping, and leans forward so that the tip of the sombrero nearly touches his feet. The date is written diagonally to the left of the tree (2-10-90), and the signature "Herby" appears in cursive letters at the bottom of the sketch. The figure appears to be of Mexican heritage due to both the sombrero and a zigzag Mexican-style shirt or blanket. This sleeping Mexican possibly alludes to the desire of whiling away time on a tropical island, as opposed to the reality of working in a railyard.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 5Colossus of Roads is, I believe, the most interesting of all train tags. This tag (Figure 5) [at left] consists of a head in profile, topped by a cowboy hat, with a swooping jawline. The character's face consists of squinted eyes (the brim of the hat is pulled down nearly on top of the eyes), and a moustache created from five lines. The character's neck swoops away from the head in a right angle, drastically elongated. While this picture is interesting enough in it's own right, the true curiosity of the tag is the constantly changing captions that accompany it. These captions generally consist of fewer than 10 words, and are both cryptic and poetic in their meaning. A few examples of these captions are: Sorrow Floats - Long Field Amputee; Trainmen? No Such Thing; XXX.. Other captions include: Conspiracy Theorist; 65,66,67,68; Invisible and Mute; Blue Tuesday; Echo Co.; Homage to Whick Whitt; Liar Sometimes; Stryker Hotel; Where's the Protection That I Needed; In Seattle; and Slack Continues [see below]. Of further curiosity is the fact that no date accompanies his tag.

Train tags, in their most essential context, exist as a form of graffiti. It is via this context that I can begin making the case that these tags are art as opposed to mere naïve markings, craft, or pointless scribbles. This point is illustrated best in examining the tags in the context of "high" versus "low" art. In essence, the terms "high" and "low" may be roughly translated as "formal" and "informal", with "high" referring to the traditional body of art that is created by professionally trained artists under the auspices of being 'real' art. "Low" art represents that body of art that is created by common people, and may even be unintended to be understood or recognized as "art." In the book High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, the authors state that "forms of low or mass art are a collectively generated "reality" of twentieth- century life which art must constantly break conventions to accommodate", and that modern artists "bring graffiti into art like a rap musician into a cotillion, to bust up stale conventions." (Varnedoe 79). Train tags, then, fulfill the authors' criteria of being a collectively generated reality. This art exists not as the creation of one or two individuals, but as a body of work created by several dozen, perhaps hundreds, of people each creating pieces that fulfil a common goal, specifically that of leaving behind a personal statement or epitaph. This epitaph is expressed in the context of a particular culture: train culture. And thus, when considered in this combination, the train tag becomes not simply a sketch made by an individual, but rather an addition to a larger body of work with a common goal, medium, and form of expression. In addition, Varnedoe states that low art is concerned with "the rise of urban culture in industrialized nations that involve self-conscious, streetwise, or commercial - as opposed to ostensibly 'naïve' - creation" (Varnedoe 16). The body of train tag art seems to fit this criteria well. As the railroad perhaps industrialized the country more than any other singular development, it stands to reason that the railroad would greatly shape and effect our culture. Train tags, then, are a product of self-conscious creation in response to this cultural shift. Another important purpose is to create a record of history via written and pictorial means. Train tags certainly accomplish this as they record the individual's (and group's) relationship with the railroad and it's industrial culture. This is accomplished as the tags, via their various pictures and sayings, illustrate intrinsic feelings, emotions, and philosophies which embody this relationship.

The idea of self-promotion and establishing a permanent sense of record or immortality is another important aspect of train tagging that conforms to traditional tenets of art. In making the case that train tags may be seen a member of the "low art" camp, we can consider their similarities to advertisements. Perhaps the single most important aspect of a train tag as that it serves as a sort of advertisement. Train tags exist to make the statement "I was here", and in that context they are sketched onto the sides of railroad boxcars which travel to different points around the country carrying forth the tagger's personal moniker and message. As is illustrated by the tags we have examined, the various sketches are each unique onto the tagger. In essence, a tag sums up in a few lines and perhaps a few words some important aspect of the tagger's identity, and when sketched onto a moveable medium that delivers the tag to an audience the tag becomes very much like an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine. Instead of selling a product, however, the tag delivers a message. It represents the individual's persona and delivers it to market. The tagger receives the satisfaction of knowing that his reputation, fame, and even immortality have been increased and preserved. In a best case scenario this form of self-advertising has the potential of propelling one's reputation to near mythical proportions, as in the case of the most famous of all taggers, Bozo Texino.

A common thread among my interviewees is that the single most important function of tagging is to establish this sense of immortality through a personal sketch that is sent via boxcar to unknown destinations. I believe that this sense of 'leaving one's mark' is as common and universal a need as self-preservation. Who among us hasn't at some point written their name or initials on a desk, in a library book, or in wet cement? This idea of creating a sense of record and permanence via a tag is addressed by Susan Farrell, curator of Art Crimes, a site on the World Wide Web dedicated to promoting the works of graffiti artists [see below]. In an interview conducted with Farrell via electronic mail she states her belief that the reason people tag trains is "To show 'I was here.' I like them because they remind me that there are people in this steel, industrial train world. They are reminders to me of the human drive for immortality through works and deeds." This idea of leaving behind one's epitaph or mark is also related to the American experience. Brett Webb, a photographer and associate of Art Crimes, comments on this idea in stating that "tagging in general is what America is all about - leaving your mark. Recognition is a big part of success in America." In leaving your mark on a train, you create a sense of permanence and stability. As this mark travels from one location to the next, viewed by various audiences, the tagger gains more notoriety and thus more permanence and stability. As tags are capable of establishing this permanence and stability they become a means of establishing one's success. Certainly it isn't necessary to make the argument that in America we view success by a few base criteria, including fame and fortune. While train tags cannot produce fortune, they are entirely capable of enhancing one's personal fame and recognition.

Of equal interest to the idea of leaving a mark or epitaph for others to view is the act of viewing this mark. In essence, it is the audience that completes the equation, and further strengthens the argument that train tags are art. For example, once a tag has been left on a boxcar it is ineffectual until someone, preferable many, see and interpret the tag. It is the audience that provides the motivation for the creation. Another interview respondent, Michael Poulin, a teacher, student and train tag connoisseur from Los Angeles, addresses this point. He states that train tags are:

...kind of like a message in a bottle, you never know where your sketch/moniker is going to end up and who's going to see it. The question I frequently ask myself is "who are these people?" That's the beauty of this art, the mystery that lies behind these names.

It is this viewing and interpreting that further propels the train tag to the status of art. Like traditional 'high' art, these sketches are intended to be seen and interpreted by an audience. The audience, by providing the probing, questioning, and consideration of the 'meaning' of these works lends credibility to the idea that they are indeed art. Art, in essence, is a medium of expression and interpretation that allows one (or many) to perceive ideas, emotions, and thoughts. When one views a train tag we instinctively adhere to these traditional values. We contemplate the meanings behind the sketches as well as the perceived identity - and value - of the artist. We ask questions concerning the philosophies of the artist and the thoughts and ideas they are expressing via the tag. And thus, through this exchange of creation and interpretation, art is made. Train tags embody the notion of basing one's identity on place as well as emphasize the American preoccupation with a nomadic lifestyle and wanderlust, both of which are characteristics represented in American art. To support this claim one can examine the various tags already mentioned. In the case of The Rambler, the artist bases his identity, in part, by listing the city in which he currently resides. At present, this city is Beaumont, Texas. In keeping with the theory that place can both represent and contribute to identity, The Rambler has reportedly changed his tag over 20 times, reflecting the various cities in which he has lived.

Figure 6Many tags, though not all, contain captions that state the location of the artist. Olympic Steel, based in Minneapolis Minnesota (figure 6) [at left], is a tag that relies almost entirely on place to express its meaning. This tag, consisting of two vertically oriented rectangles, one inside the other, with four wheels attached, contains the words "Morale Zero" and the date 8/94 (Olympic Steel is a distributor and processor of plate and sheet products in the upper Midwest). This tag is relevant only when first considered in the context of place. Without the name of the city and place of employment, the words "morale zero" have no significance. Interpreted in the context of place, however, one is able to ascertain that the tagger's attitude is dependent on both the place of city and place of employment.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 7Other tags, such as Calgary, Alberta (figure 7) [at left], exist simply to promote an individual's personal value and pride of place. This tag, without date, is simply a chalked outline of the province of Alberta, with the name of the city and province inside.

The idea that train tags emphasize the idea of nomadic activity and exploration begins first with train culture itself. Train tags are believed to have begun with hobos and tramps, who were individuals that traveled via boxcar from one area of the country to another in search of work, adventure, and companionship. The lure of this freedom to travel and conquer unexplored territories remains one of the prominent features of those who tag trains and their audience. Another interview respondent who wishes to remain anonymous because of his employment in the railroad industry (he is a conductor) comments on this idea. He states that train tags "are simple reminders of our need to be free." Examples of this American phenomenon are abundant in art. One example is George Bingham's Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1850-51 (209.132.4.118/art/bingham/daniel_boone.jpg.html). This painting, depicting pioneers settling the American West, serves to illustrate one facet of America's preoccupation with traveling and conquering uncharted territory. Another painting that depicts this American theme is Albert Bierstadt's Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867 (209.132.4.118/art/bierstadt/emigrants.jpg.html). While most train tags don't express visually this idea of travel and transient nature, they do arise from train culture which itself embodies the romantic notion of travel, exploration, and wanderlust. This can easily be related to the idea of tagging trains, as opposed to brick walls or highway overpasses. When a train is tagged with one's individual moniker and date, the message is carried forth to points unknown. The train serves as a conduit between the stationary location of the individual and the traveling of the tag. In other words, while the individual may remain stationary, anchored to a specific place, part of the individual is able to travel and explore via the tag. The tag makes its way to different areas of the country and delivers its intended message or expression to others. Through this sort of vicarious travel the tagger is able to fulfill the instinctually American penchant to explore. Again, as the tagger also serves as audience, they are able to further enhance this vicarious exploration through the viewing and interpretation of other tags. Viewing another's tag can be likened to meeting another person and learning about an integral aspect of their personality or home.

In considering where to place train tags in the canon of American art, I think that a distinct parallel can be made with Folk Art. In the Folk style, the essence of the expression or idea is of utmost importance, with visual realism and academic skill playing a much less prominent role. Instead of focusing on strict academic realism, Folk Art is more concerned with naïve directness that is capable of expression. This philosophy can easily be seen in the aforementioned train tags where very simple pictures and captions are used to express more complex thoughts and ideas. While much of the Folk genre perhaps adheres, a bit, to a more high style in its depiction, it is the basic philosophy of Folk art to which we should apply the criteria. This philosophy states that "there is usually an originality and expressiveness present because the folk artist makes images in a direct expression, or from a vision that has not been regimented by disciplined training in a school that promotes one style or another" (Craven 278). Surely train tags, in their attention to direct expression and vision, adhere to this philosophy. As an example of comparison, one can examine Eunice Pinney's Undedicated Memorial, 1815. This painting, depicting a mourning scene, illustrates the idea that realism is secondary to expression. The space and dimensions of the painting are terribly "incorrect", but this is immaterial in understanding the painting. In spite of its inaccuracies, the symbolism and meaning are easily understood. The willow tree, for example, droops in a weeping manner, further enhancing the sorrowful mood of the mourners. The boats in the background are drastically incorrect in size and realistic shape. Craven states that "The 'realness' of their appearance is immaterial - it is sufficient that they are understandable symbols." (Craven 265). Furthermore, train tags are a good candidate to fall under the Folk umbrella as they do not need to fit into the constraints of specific dates or set academic principles. Folk is more a style than a period, allowing new art to co-opt its ideas and legitimacy.

Train Tags are perhaps one of our culture's most basic contributions to the American body of art. In their simplicity of design they are accessible to nearly anyone with a grease or ink marker. In their mode of expression they are able to easily make complex commentaries on the way we as individuals see ourselves and our culture. In their function they fulfill the American need to explore, to conquer, and to gain fame, recognition, and success. Train tags arose as any body of art arises, as a means of self expression and a response to one's understanding of place, surroundings, and culture. While train tags will in all likelihood not be viewed within the frames and confines of our country's great art museums, this should not devalue their artistic value and contribution. In fact, when viewed on their native canvases their understanding and importance is increased. As for placement in the canon, they parallel the concepts of Folk Art in their simplicity and emphasis on meanings derived from symbols. The more one scrutinizes the concept of the train tag the more one finds that it adheres to the many functions, ideas, philosophies and tenets of art.

 

Works Cited

Varnadoe, Kurt and Adam Gopnik. "Graffiti." High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1990. 69-99.
Mathers, Michael H. Riding the Rails. Boston: Gambit, 1973.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Madison, Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark, 1994.

 

Notes

1) Comic Book art is examined as 'low art' in High and Low: Modern Art in Popular Culture by Varnadoe and Gopnik.
2) From posting general inquiries on the Internet I came across approximately a dozen individuals with a professed interest in train tags. Through written interviews and/or electronic mail I categorized their responses to specific questions concerning train tags.
3) The illustrations provided herein are photographs taken by the author at two sites in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first site is a length of railroad track used for train layovers running parallel to Rebsemen Park Road. The second site is the Union Pacific Rail Yard.
4) This fact taken from an advertisement for the book Around the Jungle Fire: A Collection of Original Hobo Poetry edited by Oats and published by The Hobo Press.
5) These captions are from the photo collection of Michael Poulin, a photographer and researcher of train tags.
6) Art Crimes can be found on the World Wide Web at "www.graffiti.org"
7) This information given by Michael Poulin via a telephone interview on December 13, 1997.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge and thank: the participants of my train tag interview for their various insights to train tag art; Michael Poulin for the telephone interview, and Dr. Gayle Seymour for providing intellectual provocation and guidance.

 

© 1997 by Sam Caplan. Please properly cite any use of this paper.