Down the Track

hobo handiwork
by k.j. longley for the times of north little rock, arkansas

A fleeting glimpse here. A chance sighting there. A blurry flash whizzing by on the railroad tracks.

That is the extent to which most people have ever seen "hobo art," a cryptic form of folkloric art found chalked onto rail cars from New York to Los Angeles and many a tiny rail town in between.

Indeed, the works often are so tiny, delicate or faded that they can be difficult to see even if a rail car is standing stock still.

But for the artists themselves, the curious "streaks" are an obsession, a small marker of their existence and experience, said Russell Butler, a retired railroad employee who under the chalk-name "buZ blurr" has marked cars for more than three decades with a cowboy profile known in the world of boxcar art as "Colossus of Roads."

"The image, it's just for the recognition of being something from me," he said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

But the act of leaving these marks on rail cars is also illegal.

So, Butler has spurned opportunities in the past to speak publicly about the moving, so-called "hobo art." But this Saturday he has agreed to shed light on the topic at 1 p.m. at the William F. Laman Library in North Little Rock.

Inconspicuous compared to the more recent trend of spray paint graffiti most often associated with inner-city youth, hobo art dates back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when hobos - a term coined to describe itinerant farm workers ("hoe boys") or homeward bound Civil War soldiers - began using the newly constructed transcontinental railroad to travel where they needed to go.

Soon, a symbolic hobo language, or network of shorthand imagery, was created to leave word to other rail riders about what to expect or watch out for in particular towns and rail yards. At the same time the tradition of leaving a reminder of themselves, whether a signature and date or a more elaborate illustration began.

And though the heyday of hobodom that evolved with the Great Depression has disappeared, present-day nomads and railroad workers, using chalk or wax pencils, continue the marking tradition.

Some, like Iron Grip, who merely writes that name and draws a dumb bell, as well as The Rambler and 'Lil Bubba, still leave only simple signatures.

Others have crafted images to leave their mark.

And some, like buZ blurr, leave their trademark illustration underlined by a word or phrase with a meaning known only to the artist. Underlining two different Colossus of Roads images, for example, are "33rd anniversary" and "October in the railroad earth. Gurdon track."

"It's bizarre," one Union Pacific locomotive engineer who wished to remain anonymous said of the phrases. "It's whatever's on his mind at the moment. Most of it's comical."

Butler, the son of a railroad worker and a Henderson State Teacher's College art student in the early 1960s, said he has been aware of the hobo monikers his whole life.

But it was the mark of Herby, who depicted a sombrero-clad man taking a siesta under a palm tree, that piqued his interest.

"His omnipresence out in the network was very impressive," Butler said. "It was really prevalent.

Butler started out in 1971 drawing a broad-shouldered railroad engineer, then developed the gypsy sphinx and later started penning his cowboy moniker, which evolved after he discovered Bozo Texino, a smoking cowboy character crafted between 1900 and 1940 by a locomotive engineer in San Antonio, Texas.

"The character kind of has a monotonous, redundant sameness to it; so I always want to add something or have a little variation," he said. "I change mine up day-to-day with the language I use."

The words, said Butler, come from a variety of sources.

"A phrase I think of or happen upon reading is similar to just an anecdote... for an incident in my life," he said.

Now retired, Butler, who in a New York gallery recently exhibited a series of cut stencil portraits drawn from the photos he has taken at mail art and hobo gatherings, continues to leave his mark on boxcars.

"I'm kinda obsessed with keeping images out there in the railroad network," he said.

And Ann Marie LeBlanc, director of special programs for Laman Library, said just imagining where Butler's images have traveled is what prompted her to ask him to deliver a lecture about the history of this offbeat art form.

"It's just so beguiling to think where he might have been," she said.

"I thought it would be a unique angle to approach art and to show that everybody has talent... It's fun to see how different people express the different means, modes and mediums there are for artistic expression."

But the railroad companies, which in the old days didn't bother too much about running off the hobos, aren't particularly fond of having their box cars marked up, especially with the advent of the more sizable spray paint tagging that often covers identification numbers and boxcar information required by federal law.

"It's a horrible and expensive problem for us and lastly it's just ugly as the devil," said John Bromley, a UP spokesman in Omaha, Neb. "We do arrest and prosecute people we catch doing that."

Still, he claims despite all the evidence to the contrary, hobo art really hasn't been an active form of communication in the last 40 years.

Not so, Butler assures.

"The whole connotation of the hobo does reflect back to the Depression era, when there was so many of them," he said. "But still the practice of marking up is still being done."