Jun 17, 2008

Honor Amongst Thieves

It's a funny old world we live in.

There's always someone or something inside us that says "Hey Mac, you're about to do Wrong. If you go past this point you can't go back." Sometimes there's outsiders willing to offer you the consequences of passing that marker: police, firemen, lawyers. People assigned to watch these markers and make corrections to those who pass them. Surprisingly, there's people on the other side of some of those markers who themselves become the watchers, the enforcers, preventing others from going farther than they did.

Graffiti. I don't live in a huge town but even here it's apparent. Bridges, overpasses, any sort of vertical structure plays host to the tagger. Sometimes they're as simple as a few scrawls of black Krylon and some as complex as any modern painting. Either way they're as ubiquitous as cars on a city street, and more plentiful. They're also illegal, since taggers aren't known for being law-abiding. They are, after all, usually painting on privately- or publically-owned properties.

Train cars are a major canvas for taggers. They're large and stable, extremely plentiful, stored in quiet dark places overnight or longer and they have the side benefit of being mobile, so your work gets displayed in finer trainyards and warehouse districts the country over. They're so widely and plentifully used that there's grown a codified and rigorously patrolled set of rules and regulations about vandalizing them amongst the vandals.

What brought this to mind, you ask? This email, sent to me by a contact on Flickr who appreciates my "benching." (Taking and sharing photos of graffiti.) We've written back and forth a few times, he thinking I was a painter (I'm not,) and I have gotten the impression that he wants an audience, wants me to meet him locally to record his own tagging in process. I reproduce the email here just as he wrote it.

brrn going on to buhlow [Fort Buhlow Lake, home to a three-rail siding set where the KCS leaves cuts of cars overnight and longer, a crossing, a public boat landing and a very nice park. Irr] alot latley..some kid did a throwie(tag) on the box leading into the park....if u see any more types of shit like that.. like anyone leaving spray paint cans.. or writing on shit besides trains.. tell me.. that kids going to get an ass beating when we find him.. painting the trains is one thing.. but dont go around writing on the chrome boxes/other rail road property.. or property of buhlow..these new kids have no respect for notin..

I was astounded and, surprisingly, proud of 5niner (the artist.) At every major crossing you'll find a squarish silver box, labeled with the name of the railroad that owns and maintains it and a plaque with the mile marker number, the crossing number and some other useful info on it, including a phone number to call if you're car is stranded in the crossing. These units house the electrical components of a crossing: fuses, electrical wiring for the crossing gates and wig-wag lights, and in some cases sensors to tell Central Control if there's a fault onboard passing trains. They're also, apparently, not to be touched EVER. Unspoken rule. Code of the Road.

So. What have we learned? It's okay to paint on boxcars (someone else's property) because... well, because it is. It's done so often as to be quasi-legal now. It's NOT okay, however, to defile other railroad property, nor is it acceptable to leave your empty paint cans lying around. Plus, if your favourite tagging spot happens to be on a city-owned park property you don't profane that either. You respect the area. If you don't, you get a serious realignment of your outlook by other, older taggers.

In exchange for your cooperation with these unspoken rules? In exchange you get harassed by the cops a little less because you're vandalizing but with a very narrow scope, a focus that's sadly lacking in most other people. You're not littering, you're not painting park property, you're simply painting boxcars. You're out there wishing significant others a happy birthday, calling for the release of imprisoned friends, staking out territory and over all you're making a semi-permanent mark of your presence in a city or state. But, you're doing it in a very controlled manner, one which hopefully will keep the 5-Oh off your ass.

Rules within rulebreaking. Laws you don't read about in the books but you live by if you're within their scope. Curiouser and curiouser.


Mona Buonanotte said...

Even within chaos, there is order.

With the long lines of trains I have to endure on a daily basis, I actually enjoy seeing grafitti on the boxcars as they slowly wend their way through my town. Gives me something to look at, and some are downright museum quality.

And thanks for the explanation of those railway boxes. I had no idea!

Shao said...

That's actually pretty interesting to me. Ask your buddy if he knows who's been spray painting the word SMOKE on walls all over downtown. I have about 6 counts of vandalism if I catch him. Oh, yeah, also let him know not to be in the Buhlow Park area after dark least he get plastered all over the Town Talk like those other buggers. >.>

meno said...

Honor among thieves?

Stucco said...

Wonder how 5niner would react to former train pissing contests?

Clowncar said...

I used to love watching the graffiti-on-wheels that is the NYC subway system. There were, I'm sure, rules within rule-breaking going on there too. But I don't know what they were. I had a friend I'd ride home from work with occasionally, and he'd get SO ANGRY about all the graffiti. Me, I'd just watch the colors and shapes roll by.

Curiouser and curiouser indeed.

Jean said...

What a unique canvass for expression.

Irrelephant said...

You're welcome, Mona! I deeply envy you the opportunity to see so many trains, and so many tags. You're right--a quick browse of Flickr will reveal some singularly GORGEOUS pieces, all rendered in aerosol cans. There's some truly gifted girls and guys out there painting on those cars.

Shao, I thought you were an Alex cop? What you doin' skulking around the lake? *g*

meno, you're right, my grammar skillz leave something to be desired at times.

Stucco, I thought for certain he was one of YOUR buddies....

It's a very polarizing thing, CC. There's very few who are aware of it that don't love or hate it, no point inbetween. THEN you get into the specialized levels of tagging--the guys who use stickers, who use templates, and then the railmen who are a whole other class unto themselves--Colossus of Roads, The Solo Artist, Bookman, there's literally hundreds of just railroad employee graffiti artists.

Jean, it certainly offers certain challenges, tho I have to say that if I were tempted (and skilled enough) I've had plenty of opportunity to put my own moniker on boxes. Surprising how easy it could be. *wink*

Gordo said...

I remember hearing a report a number of years ago on CBC about building owners (in what city, I can't recall) hiring local graffiti artists (and they ARE artists) to pain their buildings. They looked amazing AND the artists protected their work, too. Repairs would be made and/or rivals who would dare mess with their work would be chased off.

Some amazing stuff can be done with a few cans of Tremclad.

kene.theories said...

Oh tremclad ain't to bad for cheap cans. The krylon of Canada.