The railroad as a part of Frontier Mythology has long since been surpassed by more modern versions of the story, but the truth is, it almost functions better as nostalgia.
Railroads are quaint in their differences from car culture—it’s the communal versus the individual, a methodical plodding through landscape versus a furious speeding to the beyond. Despite the rudimentary structure and lumbering mechanical form, there is something strangely more human about trains than you’ll find in automobiles. A car is a thing we wear like an accessory, but a train is a thing we become a part of.
There’s no purer or more human graffiti than that which co-exists with freight trains. I say “co-exists” because the difference between painting on freights and painting on walls is stark: when you paint on a wall, you appropriate space, you take it over. But when you paint in the train yard, you’re sending a carrier pigeon into the wilderness, a letter by pony across the great expanse. You’re putting a message into a bottle and letting it ride the tides until it reaches somewhere else entirely.
Freight train graffiti is almost entirely devoid of immediate political implications. I’ve said that, in a sense, all graffiti is a political act, and this is inescapable. But what political arguments that might exist in this graffiti are already present in the railroad itself: the plight of the poor, hobo culture, humanity still reeling from industrialization. The freight writers celebrate and capitalize on this framework, keeping their own traditions slightly separated from urban graffiti, finding themselves more closely aligned with train hobbyists.
These days, keeping in touch with this migrating art is not only possible, but probable—multiple websites and Instagram feeds are dedicated to the art of train-watching. But imagine, for a moment, those olden days, before our always-connected world, where our writer would wander into the train yard to paint a car she might never see again.
What a different, almost backwards sort of conquest, more closely resembling the Voyager missions than Christopher Columbus—a person, scrawling the momentary definition of herself on a hunk of metal and sending it away, to meet whatever or whoever it found.