The trainmen who keep art alive

Who likes graffiti art? I do! You too? Whenever I’m stopped at a railroad crossing, I watch the boxcars crawl by and visually feed off of the graffiti art with a rodent’s fury. Every arm-stretching, spray-painted brush stroke is so raw and full of love. Yes, love. The love for respect, recognition or the simple love of having a visual voice.


Most of the visual arts community has embraced old-style, hobo boxcar art with warmth and intrigue, due to the groundbreaking work done by Margaret Kilgallen, who has passed on, and Barry McGee. Their work is the driving force behind the most personal and moving art we have in cutting-edge galleries today. Folks should remember whom McGee and Kilgallen looked to for inspiration: hobos.


Visual art and trains have been connected long before spray-paint came into the scene. Hobos, tramps, trainmen or whatever you want to call them, write, tag or scratch cute little names and picture doodles that achieve the same goal as bigger spray painted graffiti. It’s pure self-expression. The Lonely Trainmen film screening and benefit for Vanessa Renwick’s new film project “Critter” explored the wonderful world of hobo and railroad worker art. This sold out show also marked the Portlandia premiere of Bill Daniel’s 20-year-long project, the over-the-edge documentary “Who is Bozo Texino?”


The historic Hollywood Theatre was completely packed with interested and interesting people who whole-heartedly wanted to go for a ride, hobo style. To begin with, the crowd giggled and politely watched Renwick’s five-minute experimental portrait of a grain tower with a railway terminal. After the audience was limbered up for the artsy and the fartsy, Renwick’s “Lovejoy” (a work-in-progress) treated everyone to a colorful video having to do more with a group of people who perform mock ritual ceremonies and read poetry rather than the 1948-era folksy paintings by Tom Stefopoulos. Hopefully when the film is finished there will be more information about Stefopoulos and the environment he worked in.  


The stage was utterly stolen by Bill Daniel’s “Who is Bozo Texino?” Recorded with 16mm black and white film, the 60-minute documentary took the crowd on a wild and rascally ride. Daniel’s investigation led us all into the personal and sincere worlds of trainmen who communicate through art, or hobo scratching, thousands of miles away from each other. Once Daniel finally found the man who writes “Bozo Texino” and doodles a little cowboy, we were treated to Bozo’s photo albums full of the art he cherishes the most: other trainmen’s art.


Those old trainmen really got life by the balls. I wish I had their grip, but I can barely hold onto my handlebars, let alone a freight train. During one of the most touching interviews a hobo talks about how crazy and fucked-up American society is, how it’s founded on lies, murders and greed. He sees himself as one less person adding to the problem because he’s removed himself from society. At that moment I wanted out of this mess also.


Everyone remained seated until the last credit vanished and the applause roared on. Even after we were cleared from the theater to make room for the next show, people hung around trying to remain in the gritty light and freedom found in the trainmen’s’ artistic philosophy. Make art for the purest reason, self-expression.