Friday, December 29, 2006

Freight Train Graffiti

We lived in California's Central Valley for a while -- the land of intensive agriculture and freight trains. Our life would be rhythmed by the endless whistle of trains criss-crossing the countryside -- and the endless waits at train crossings, where there would be nothing to do but admire the long centiwheels adorned with colorful graffiti.
In their book Freight Train Graffiti, Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland and Ian Sattler take us on a fascinating "coast-to-coast photo tour of the nation’s most decorated freight yards" [LAWeekly], intersecting graffiti culture with the history of American railroads -- from the discovery of the West, to the Civil War, hobos, and WWII.

Though the rails' heydays are over, "freight transportation remains an important part of the US business infrastructure," write the authors. "According to the Association of American Railroads, as recently as 2003, over 28 million freight carloads originated in the United States, with an average haul of 862.4 miles. Approximately 1,800 tons of freight were carried in 2003 alone, gaining gross revenue over $38 million. In 2002, there were 552 railroads operating over 1.2 million freight cars along over 170,000 miles of track." Impressive stats. Prompted S.O. to remark that "In Europe, trains move people. Here, they move freight."

As for graffiti, there is no arguing its impact, both as an art form and as a cultural movement. "Graffiti has been part of the underground culture in the United States since the late 1960s. [It] had caught on in every major US city by the mid-1980s, and by the early 1990s graffiti culture had spread worldwide," earning its stripes as acceptable urban art.

The book discusses the evolution of graffiti, from its birth in the 1960s, to subways in the 1970s, to late 20th century trains; from vandalism to art; from underground protest to corporate logos; its impact on railroads, and their schizophrenic attitude to it.
"The United States' love affair with trains will probably never be as intense as it was in the early 1900s, but towards the end of the 20th century one group would come to build a subculture around freight trains that was just as obsessive. As graffiti writers heralded freight trains as their new golden chalice, the rails would receive more attention from American youth than they had had in fifty years."
Interviews with over one hundred freight artists and train enthusiasts complete the story. A beautiful journey.
scans from Freight Train Graffiti