Railcar graffiti: An eternally traveling art show

On display from coast to coast and border to border, this traveling art show may be the biggest in the nationMost certainly, it’s the heaviest.

For decades, railcar graffiti has been rolling across Montana around the clock, in all seasons, in all weather.  

While the graffiti is free for the viewing, few people stop to study the colorful paintings – unless they’re stuck behind the wheel at a railroad crossing, patiently waiting as a long freight train chugs by.

But this is not free, engaging art in the eyes of all beholders. Railroad companies spend millions every year to remove graffitibuild and maintain fencing and security cameras, and patrol railyards. 

Officials say graffiti artists are nothing more than vandals, trespassers who damage private property and endanger the safety of employees and customers.

Graffiti artists see railcars as an inviting canvas on which to display their talent in many forms. (Click the arrows above the photo for recent examples seen on rails from Frannie, Wyo., through Edgar, Laurel and Billings.) Some common descriptions include:

Tags – a stylized signature, usually in one color, quick and easy to produce.
Pieces – short for masterpiece, these large, time-intensive murals require more effort than simpler “throw-ups” that usually feature a one-color outline and one layer of fill-in color.
Top-to-bottom – dramatic pieces covering the side of the railcar from top to bottom. They are a rare sight in these parts, as are “whole car” pieces in which every surface of the traincar except the front and rear are painted. It takes a graffiti crew to complete this undertaking in quick fashion, before the car moves out of the area.

Some of the first markings were in chalk or pencil, applied by early railroad workers to pass along essential information on weights, arrival/departure times and contents to be unloaded at stations down the line. 

Later, train-hopping hobos communicated with their own markings called hobo codes.

As the hip-hop culture exploded in the 1970s, graffiti spread like wildfire in the subways of New York City and other large metro areas. It inevitably moved to the railyards, where freight cars were relatively easy targets for aspiring artists.

As a show of respect for one another and the railroad companies, many artists do not paint over the work of others, and they avoid covering railcar identification numbers and other important handling and safety information that the companies paint on their cars.

Freight train graffiti has brought  fame to many artists. Books on graffiti as an art form and cultural movement have been written. The rich history of railcar graffiti and frustrating business challenge it presents are on display every day on rails connecting the Big Sky region with the rest of the nation.

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