The Art of Freight Train Painting

Canada's railyard Rembrandts create art that moves

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Canada's most beautiful vandal is a fallen angel with filthy hands. He is one of about 35 such criminals across this country, white males in their 20s who obsessively, furtively, jubilantly practice what they—and some who see their creations—hold to be a form of art.

The vandal and his accomplices haunt train yards and paint elaborate graffiti on the boxcars. They do this because it is illegal, because walls and alleys are boring, because it unites them with hobo tradition. They do it because freight cars move.

"Every artist dreams of having a show in Chicago," he says. "Well, I have a show in Chicago every day, and in New York, and in all the small towns along the tracks." I have pledged not to identify him—or any of his peers—although naming, "monikering," tagging, proclaiming an invented identity is the nucleus of his endeavor. In public, those who paint freights prefer to be known by a single, choleric noun: CASE, FLOW, TAKE, CHROME, FEAR. Or a maudlin adjective: ALONE, OTHER, SOLO, HIGH. They baptize themselves into brotherhoods with puffed-up titles like Those Damn Vandals and Bombs Away.

Trespassing in train yards across Canada, they floridly paint boxcars or tankers or auto racks overnight, alone or with their crew, identifying themselves only by moniker and telephone area code: FLOW 514 from Montreal. The hope is that someone might spot their work somewhere else across the country.

Some nights, a painter may forgo a major production and simply move rapidly from car to car to car, tagging each with a small logo or ornamental signature, keeping score in a notebook of the serial numbers of the wagons he hits. An American man who signs himself The Solo Artist is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over 20 years. For larger works that can cover an entire 70-foot hopper or tanker, a lifetime count of 300 pieces marks a man for the defacers' hall of fame.

Quite a few of the painters have been to art school. Most of them work afternoons, invisibly, as Mike or Art or Steve or Joel, their fever dissipated in the daylight world. They spend their money on markers and spray cans. Lacking cash, they'll steal whatever they need, the compulsion is so strong.

The beautiful vandal uses a wheelchair. A train crushed him when he was a teenager; he won't stand or walk again. His tag is the universal symbol for wheelchair parking with a railroad track running through it. It is painted in white, a foot or so high, on about 5,000 of North America's 1.6 million freight cars.

Now he is 24. His hair is already graying, fingernails blackened, eyes bottomless. He tells me, "I'm in a league of my own, 'cause of my predicament."

The urge is still in him. Friends carry him down to the yards. Last spring, he rode a boxcar across the country. Getting on, getting off, he would hand his chair to an accomplice and climb to it.

"We thought, if our art can move around this system, why can't we?" he says.

He believed, when he was younger, that graffiti was a deposition of American ghetto frustration and creativity. In Canada, short on slums and grimness, it was merely a copycat crime.

"Then trains started bringing the art in," he says. "All of a sudden, in a stale environment where there was no other graffiti, I would see a piece and think, 'Holy shit! Where's that from?'

"It became an issue of synchronicity—being around at the right time, when a car happened to be passing by. There was that sense of wonder—Where are these guys from?—and I built this chaos theory of it: all this art, moving around chaotically, and none of the artists are in control of where it goes.

"Think of it, man—you're sitting in your car at some crossing and all of a sudden this art comes rolling past you, and you happen to look up and you have about half a second to see it and you'll never get another chance. It's just synchronicity—that's why seeing a piece on a freight is special, as opposed to seeing a piece on a wall where someone tells you where to go to see it.

"That's my favorite theme—synchronicity. Do you know how to increase your synchronicity?" he asks. "Increase your awareness."

The two men who conduct me into the Montreal freight yards could not be more opposite. One is the self-professed wastrel, defined by his apartness; the other is groomed and spartan. One is the son of a physics professor; the other doesn't want his father's occupation revealed.

The latter is part of an established crew that "bombs" walls and abandoned factories as well as freights. He calls himself FLOW—wolf spelled backwards—because as a child he was fascinated with wolves. He is 28, muscular, soft-spoken, a nondrinker, he says, nonsmoker, no drugs. He has tagged about 1,500 boxcars this year with his moniker of a diesel engine coming at you down the tracks. He has model trains at home.

The other man is slender, 27, unkempt, bushy, matter-of-fact when he professes that he does his best work alone, after midnight, with 40 ounces or more of strong malt liquor in him; he's what Walt Whitman in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry called a "solitary committer." He, too, loves trains—he rides freights and even buys tickets just to be moving, to stare from the window, high on awareness.

He used to sign SHAMUS (his real middle name) but changed to OTHER because it suited the personality he was trying to create. His railway art is unlike anything I have ever seen, anywhere: faces, haunted, downcast, tormented, melting as if they were waxen, heads four feet high on tankers and hoppers, painted freehand, spontaneously.

Friends have tried to steer him into a university fine arts program—he has taken a few courses—but he detests classrooms ("I don't really fit the school thing") and fears the critique that inevitably comes when art stands still.

"It seems like such an obvious thing," OTHER says, walking toward the yards. "Put your name on something and see where it goes."

We hike south of Central Station, cross the Lachine Canal from downtown Montreal, pass the police depot, scramble up and down the loose, weedy embankments, and end up under the Victoria Bridge. About 300 freight cars, mostly greasy black tankers and corrugated Hanjin intermodal containers from Korea that graffiti artists rarely bother with, are lined up in a skein of engineless trains.

Some of the cars have been sitting here for quite some time. A monumentally troubling work on a gray hopper labeled OTHER AS AN EARLESS SPERM was painted weeks before; he is delighted to show it off, and dismayed that it has not yet been moved down the rails. It is a self-portrait of the science professor's son, with the side of his face leaking away.

"I'm not crazy about this term artist for what I do," FLOW says, methodically chalking his moniker on a succession of boxcars, while sleek passenger coaches and thunderous switching engines and motor traffic roar by us on an overpass. He turns toward OTHER, who is sketching a series of angular aliens holding pitchforks, and some warped teddy bears and pussycats—venally cute.

"He's an artist," FLOW says. "He can draw faces and stuff. I don't think my stuff belongs on canvas. But his does."

"Why do you do this?" I ask.

"I don't know why I still do it," FLOW replies. "Maybe I'm just a loser?" In answer to the same question, OTHER hands me a photograph of a soliloquy he painted on a gray chemical tanker:

It seems that nobody understands me coming down in the yards here. My girlfriend told me maybe it's time to hang up the paint and markers, this weekend. My parents think I'm crazy, eccentric at the best. My friends tell me to paint canvases. Fuck I don't know. The air so fresh down here at night, it's so quiet for a city, I feel more comfortable in freight yards than at home. This is my life—this is my love—why can't this be accepted?

"It's all about movement," OTHER says. "Message in a bottle, but the bottle always comes back."

When we leave, walking north through the derelict street, we pass a shop that has placed in its windows prints of Van Gogh sunflowers and starry nights. I ask if the men consider this to be true beauty.

"If I was going to buy a piece of art," FLOW shrugs, "I'd get something with trains in it."

Later, I ask another train painter named DURO3 to name who he'd consider a great artist. "I'd love to meet Michelangelo, man," he says. "He did pieces. He did productions. Did you ever see the Sistine Chapel? Not just the ceiling, man—the walls.

"He must have done 20 figures there," he continues. "That man is awesome. If Michelangelo was alive, I'd give him a bunch of cans. He'd do the best train ever."

From Saturday Night (March 2000). The magazine is now distributed 48 times a year in the Saturday edition of National Post.