Beyond the Streets

Freight Trains

About this Section

Trains and graffiti have been inextricably linked since just after the first steam-railroad tracks were laid in the United States. The Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) entered service in 1830, with the first markings on boxcars made by rail workers in chalked logistics. As train-hopping became a free but illegal way for the poor to travel by the late 1800s, the transient culture developed its own written language, a set of symbols known as the “Hobo Code,” with travelers drawing their icons on trains in paint sticks and oil crayons. Monikers, as they would soon be called, are still a popular tradition that many people including rail workers carry on to this day. By the early 1970s, graffiti took hold of the New York City subway system, with writers painting the innards and outsides of cars, while the network doubled as a way to showcase their work to a citywide audience. Laid-up freights resting in train yards offered writers even larger, more accessible canvases, with the potential for cross-country viewership. By the late 1980s a subculture of graffiti began on the freight trains, as graffiti writers embraced them and some dedicated their careers to them. Just as governments and corporations used eminent domain to claim space needed for the railroads, graffiti writers seized the rolling metal galleries as their own, forever coupling the form to this emblem of Americana.

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