by david paulsen for the wausau (wi) daily herald
From Merrill to Wausau to Stevens Point and destinations beyond, locomotives lug boxcars loaded with more than lumber, coal and the typical cargo. The cars also serve as wide metal canvases transporting chalk and spray paint left by artists or vandals.
The graffiti, whether considered beauty or blight, are almost impossible to miss. Anyone stopped at a railroad crossing has seen these numbers, letters, scribbles and drawings.
Some are made with chalk, like the markings hobos once left as messages to friends in other towns. Railroad workers still leave chalk markings on cars to note that the equipment is in "bad order," or in need of repair. The aerosol variety usually is the work of gang members or pieces by "taggers," individuals who try to earn the respect of their peers by spending hours painting bright, ornate pieces on the sides of dormant cars.
Such graffiti are the object of research, the bane of railroad bosses, the focus of at least one magazine and the hobby of a Wausau man, who turns them into decals for model trains.
And people waiting for the train to pass can read a sort of story in the strange designs coming into town from afar and headed to some unknown destination down the track.
One miniature mural of an unnamed city's skyline at sepia-toned dusk passed through Wausau recently on the side of a northbound train.
"That's been through here three or four times," said Bill Priepke, 33, of Wausau, who has taken more than 900 digital photographs of railcar graffiti and turned dozens of them into decals. He sells them to model train enthusiasts interested in adding a touch of authenticity to their boxcars and coal cars.
In 2½ years of posting the decals on the Internet auction site eBay, Priepke has come to know some of the graffiti artists personally. They see the items on eBay and send him e-mail identifying themselves as the decals' artists.
Gang symbols typically consist of crudely drawn letters and numbers in a single color, Priepke said. Taggers often use several bright colors and stencils to create a much more elaborate painting.
"A lot of them are middle-class white guys," Priepke said. "The one guy that I talked to down in Ohio is 28 and he still does it frequently. And he's married, has a kid and a house, (and) a real job."
Ted Bullman, owner of Hobby Connection in Rothschild, has a great view of the trains passing on the tracks across Grand Avenue. He sells Priepke's decals and appreciates a good piece of graffiti.
"The railroad doesn't like it. Those railroad fans that are very staunch railroad fans, they won't like it. But I see that it's an interesting art form," Bullman said. "I also think it could be something that would create an interest (in railroads)."
One of the most striking pieces he has seen is of a boxcar muskellunge.
Priepke has seen the same musky.
"A really wicked-looking musky, too. Kind of a caricature of a musky," Priepke said.
The original railroad graffiti was the work of hobos and railroad men who expressed themselves in a much simpler language of white chalk and recurring monikers.
It is an art form that a railroad worker from San Jose, Calif., known only as Mick Trackside, has documented for a couple years in a sporadic journal called Faded-Glory Magazine.
Trackside, 52, spurns the spray-paint artists for covering up vital figures on the sides of cars. He reveres chalk art, however, as a sort of shadow history of the railroads dating back at least to the 1920's when a worker calling himself Bozo Texino began leaving his mark on car after car.
"I've researched the heck out of that," Trackside said in a phone interview.
Other prominent chalk artists include Ed Haskel, Raven, Colossus of Roads, Other, Broke, the Grabiron Kid and Pooh. These railroad workers are keeping up a tradition rather than vandalizing trains, Trackside said.
Even Jack Burke, spokesman for Canadian National Railway, which owns Wisconsin Central, speaks in reverent terms of some of this traditional chalk writing remembered from his days working on the trains.
One drawing in particular was "eloquent in its simplicity," Burke said, "a very simple but elegant graffiti of a gentleman in a sombrero sleeping under a palm tree.
"And this particular chalked artwork could be seen on railcars, particularly on wheels, but on railcars all over the United States. I'm going back 35 years now.
"And it eventually turned out to be a guy working for the 'MoP' in St. Louis - the MoPac, Missouri and Pacific. It was done with an economy of strokes, but it was still a fairly detailed piece of artwork. It was the railroad equivalent of the 'Kilroy was here' of World War II fame," Burke said.
"But it was done in chalk, and it was completely innocuous," he said. "(Painted graffiti) is not artwork but vandalism."
Bullman, of the Hobby Connection, is more ambivalent.