Setting the Scene
The rock bed around the rails digs into your knees while you kneel between tanker cars, waiting in darkness for a pickup truck to pass. The sound of tires on loose rocks grows closer as the truck passes, its headlights flashing from behind a tanker car’s wheels.
A graffiti artist waits patiently hoping the truck is only on a routine security patrol. He then picks up his backpack clanging with spray cans. He walks quickly across an empty track and grabs the tank car’s ladder. Hand over hand, he climbs atop the black tanker. Perched atop the tanker there is now a clear view of the ArcelorMittal steel plant just south of downtown Cleveland. Colorful flames burst from smokestacks set against a sea of lights. Strings of freight cars line the tracks ready to provide service to the steel mill.
The artist checks the horizon one last time to ensure the coast is clear. He affixes his respirator again for good measure, just before climbing down to resume work on the mural he had started before the interruption. He sets his spray cans in a line and gets to work. Over the next 30 minutes he molds his creation, occasionally stepping back to get a better overall look at his work.
When he finishes he looks at his mural one last time to take a mental photograph. He may never see his work again as the rail car could roll away at a moments notice. He slinks off into the darkness after another successful night.
Why Do Something So Dangerous and Risky?
Graffiti artists risk arrest on a routine basis. They often expose themselves to physical dangers in harsh environments. They cannot be credited for their work because of its illegal nature. They spend money on spray paint for the privilege of taking all these risks. And to add insult to injury, they will likely never see their work again as it is destine to ultimately roll down the tracks to a new destination. So what is the appeal? The answer may surprise you. Below are a few quotes from artists speaking on why write graffiti.
“When I’m out here, I really get time to think” — Jaber – Long Beach CA
“I started painting on the streets as a form of political expression of this opposition and solidarity with certain revolutionary figures and ideals.” — Sober – Cairo Egypt
“I did it (early on especially) because it was a way of feeling part of something bigger” — Anonymous Artist
“With the evaporation of school art programs and the inaccessibility of high-priced art program, graffiti was my artistic outlet” — Anonymous Artist
After reading some of the quotes you can see that graffiti isn’t just about vandalism and gangs. For some it is a rewarding experience. As an outsider looking at underground graffiti culture, I feel the public persona on graffiti is negative. That is understandable. There is certainly no shortage of low quality graffiti that is nothing more than vandalism. However, I have found there is a subset of graffiti culture that is surprisingly respectful, artistic, even altruistic. Most matured artists do it as a matter of self-expression, self-discovery, and most importantly don’t have ill intentions. In fact, my most interesting discovery was that graffiti can be harmless if done correctly.
Why Graffiti Can Be Harmless
After reading the heading above I am guessing that you are thinking that graffiti can’t possibly be harmless. After all, someone is getting their property damaged. That is how I thought too, until I spoke with some artists that described an interesting dynamic to me.
One of the most popular canvases for graffiti artists are freight trains. On each rail car there is something known as a reporting mark. Reporting marks are a two-to-ten character code consisting of letters and numbers. A reporting mark is used to uniquely identify each rail car so that it’s location can be tracked, and pertinent information about the car can be determined. The United States Surface Transportation Board (STB) assigns reporting marks to every rail car in the US. These marks are mandated by law.
Graffiti artists are aware of this dynamic between railroads and the STB. If graffiti artists cover the reporting marks, the railroad will be obliged to remove the graffiti and reapply the reporting mark. Graffiti artists obviously do not want to have their work removed. And railroads don’t want to spend money removing graffiti. For this reason, graffiti artists are mindful not to cover reporting marks or any critical information on the train. It is a mutually beneficially relationship where the railroad goes unharmed, and the artists also wont have their work removed. Below you will see a quote from an artist speaking about the unwritten rule of honoring reporting marks.
“If you do it right, they don’t really care and your piece can run for years, all across the country” — Jaber – Long Beach CA
The purpose of this article is not to defend all graffiti. I admit there is no shortage of vandalism and crude graffiti. However I hope this article will shed some light on the subset of freight train graffiti culture that unjustly gets a bad reputation. In the right context graffiti can bring color and art to a bleak landscape.