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Writing the Trains: Graffiti on Freight Cars

Writing the Trains: Graffiti on Freight Cars

Drew Tewksbury

The underside of freight cars smells like wet dust. The cold metal rail digs into your knees while you hide between tanker cars, waiting in darkness for a pickup truck to pass. The sound of tires on asphalt grows closer as the truck passes, its headlights flashing from behind a tanker car’s wheels.

Jaber, a graffiti artist, waits patiently, then picks up his backpack clanging with spray cans, affixes his paint mask, and says, “I think we’re cool, let’s go.”

He walks quickly across an empty track and grabs the tank car’s ladder. Hand over hand, Jaber climbs atop the black tanker. The pickup truck is nowhere to be seen, but the Port of Long Beach is in full view. Red flames burst from smokestacks set against a sea of lights, and freight cars line the tracks like steel sausage links on rails. It’s an industrialized version of hell, half Blade Runner and half Hieronymus Bosch, but for Jaber and the countless freight writers across the world, the train yard is their home.

“When I’m out here, I really get time to think,” says Jaber, who gave his graffiti name but did not want to be further identified. He climbs off the tanker and returns to a mural he has started on a primer-gray boxcar. He sets out his cans in a line, looks at the series of lines and angles scrawled across the car. Over the next 45 minutes Jaber sprays colors and designs that are difficult to see in the darkness.

He is creating a “burner,” a multicolored piece that spans most of the boxcar. Burners are a distant relative to hobo codes, the markings written on freight trains by train-hopping hobos of the 19th and 20th centuries. Those codes are some of the earliest forms of graffiti in California, written in coal on trains and under the oldest bridges, where traveling hobos slept.

For most of his life Jaber has walked along the tracks to tag his signature image — a cartoonish profile (possibly a self-portrait) — on the underbelly of trains and on industrial complexes. Now in his early 30s, Jaber makes his living with his art, selling canvases of his works, live painting at events, and working in the film industry.

When he has the time, he returns to his roots in the train yard. He never hits a “holy roller,” a car carrier named for the small holes in its metal walls, which would allow paint to penetrate and damage the autos. He also is careful not to cover train identification numbers or other markings essential to the rail officials.

“If you do it right, they don’t really care and your piece can run for years, all across the country,” Jaber says.

He was right. Earlier that day, Jaber spotted a car he had marked in 2007. “I remember that very night,” he said, smiling slightly at the sight of his old friend.

Los Angeles city officials are trying to end freight writing. In August, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich told the L.A. Times about an “end of days scenario” for graffiti crews, in which injunctions would make it illegal for taggers to hang out together. It’s the same tactic the city uses on gang members.

“If you want to tag, be prepared to go to jail,” Trutanich said, “And I don’t have to catch you tagging. I can just catch you ... with your homeboys.”

A spokesperson from Trutanich’s office tells L.A. Weekly that the plan is just in “an exploratory phase,” and his office claims that 32 million square feet of graffiti were removed in 2007-2008 at a cost of more than $7 million.

Like Jaber, many graffiti writers are not “homeboys,” and they don’t tag over city murals or private property. With the evaporation of school art programs in underserved communities and the inaccessibility of high-priced art programs — where an MFA is almost always required — the wall, billboard or freight train presents a better opportunity for artists to get seen.

The periodic fetishization of graffiti by the art establishment — from Basquiat and Banksy to Shepard Fairey — sends the message that street art is more than a hobby. It can become a lucrative and important branch of America’s folk-art lineage.

Union Pacific railroad has a different view. The painting of freight cars is illegal and unsafe, and violators are subject to arrest by Union Pacific police, says Tom Lange, communications director.

Jaber knows all of that. But it doesn’t stop him.

“That’s it,” he says of his work, moving back from the boxcar. He holds up his camera and takes a picture. In the flash, Jaber’s mural comes into view: the jagged blue letters unfolding like feathers or vines, the imperial-purple waves crashing behind the text, and black script reading “Lost Angel.”

Then darkness returns. Jaber puts the camera in his backpack and leaves the train yard and his burner. Tomorrow the train might be gone, but in the unsaid mantra of the freight writer: What you create comes back to you.