The Art of Freight Train Painting

Canada's railyard Rembrandts create art that moves


| September-October 2000



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.