The (mostly) true story of hobo graffiti

It ranges from elaborate murals … to crude scribbles on bathroom walls. Leaving your name, or “tag,” on things
that aren’t yours is an age-old practice in bragging rights – just to say, “I was
here.” And the more intricate the tag or more challenging
the spot, the better. But, this story isn’t about the type of
tag you’ve probably seen. It’s about this one. The tag of the hobo. “Hobos,” or “tramps,” were workers
and wanderers that once roamed the countryside by illegally hopping freight trains. Peak Hobodom in America began in the 1890s,
continued through the 1930s, and usually coincided with periods of financial crisis and mass
unemployment. Around the same time, the expansion of the
railroad opened up new work opportunities in the West. This kind of classic late 19th century hobo
was someone who kind of navigated between jobs and not having jobs. You know, a lot of these jobs are temporary,
like seasonal agricultural work, or you know, “Thanks for building the bridge, now get
out of here.” I’m Bill Daniel, I’m a photographer – I
work in film, photo, and tall tales. By 1911, the number of hobos in America was
estimated at 700,000. Being on the road wasn’t easy. Hobos were unwelcome in many towns and were
constantly chased by both local police and private railroad police. And despite their reputation for being bums,
100 years ago, a skilled hobo was called a “professional,” or, “profesh.” So a profesh is someone who’s, like, good
at what they do, they’re able to not get caught by the law, and you know, leave the
camp clean for the next guy. And maybe most importantly, they didn’t
draw attention to wherever hobos were. A profesh, you know, does not blow up the
spot. Hobos were constantly on the move, but they
found a way to communicate with each other — through graffiti. Search “hobo graffiti” online, and you’ll
find these mysterious icons that hobos supposedly used as a sort of coded graphic language. Symbols that they would scratch or draw onto
houses and fence posts to let fellow wanderers know things like “kind lady lives here,”
“there are thieves about,” or “good place for a handout.” Stories surrounding these signs have been
circulating for a long time. Tramps have a sort of touch-and-go code. This sign, for instance, means “no good.” They show up in the original hobo literature,
too. Like in the books of Leon Ray Livingston,
also known as A-No. 1, once the world’s most famous hobo. In the early 20th century, A-No. 1 published
several books about hobo life and lore, and included symbols like these. And news articles at the time even claim to
decode the “secret hobo language.” This St. Louis Star article from 1921 even
includes illustrations of how the signs were supposedly being used. The problem is, all this information came
from hobos, a group that took pride in their elusiveness and embellished storytelling. The truth is, there really isn’t any evidence
that these signs were as widely used as the literature suggests. It’s hard for us to know what the facts
were because I think hobos used their mythology as kind of a cover. And so the tall tales, and the drawings, and
even the books by A-No. 1 were ways to project an image of themselves that both kind of,
like, blew them up, but also kind of kept them hidden. Hobo graffiti was actually rooted in a graphic
representation of their road persona, called a “moniker.” Any hobo has a moniker that rides the rails. And different monikers fit different ’bos. Monikers usually said something about the
person. Where they were from. A physical trait. If they were young or old. How hobos used their monikers sort of falls
into two camps: leaving their tag on boxcars moving across the country, and something Bill
calls “tramp writing.” Early original tramp writing has to do with
addressing the issues of mobility and travel – announcing your place and direction and
where you are. The original graffiti included arrows and
letters indicating which direction that hobo was heading next. Sort of like a hobo tracker. Tramps are generally making these marks on
water tanks or stationary things, you know, where they were camped out. So it worked as kind of a personal telegraph. You know, like, “I’m here, is anybody
around?” Tinder for tramps. And it wasn’t long before the drawings moved
from stationary objects like water tanks to railcars. I think there was just an evolution, kind
of like what happened in New York, with, like, “Oh I can write on my street corner, but
if I write on this train, boom it’s going everywhere.” And hobos weren’t the only ones doing this
kind of graffiti. Rail workers, stuck in the same trainyard
for years, marked passing boxcars with monikers of their own. I started doing it October of ‘68. A lot of them guys would go on vacation, and
they’d say, “Well I seen one of your damn drawings in Canada, or Mexico, or California,
you know? I thought well, I’ll never get there, might
as well send something. Monikers aren’t used for communication anymore,
but they do still exist in freight graffiti. And it’s kind of come to mean specifically
this type of drawing. You know, usually oil stick or chalk-based
drawing that’s usually an identity proclamation, usually a sketch, a lot of times a self portrait. “Moniker” just kind of is the perfect
word to describe this type of art writing. At its core, all graffiti is a messaging system,
even if the message is as simple as “I was here.” Tramp writing, you know, tramp marking, has
that in common with graffiti that it has a little bit to do with making a connection
with somebody in a really remote place, even when they’re not there. Just this ability to say, like, “Whoa, you
got here too.”

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Reader Comments

  1. Br1koo

    Graffiti writers are also communicating with each other. Its a kind of message through the piece, which could only understand another writer. The message itself isnt actually a real message, but a projection, like if i see another dudes piece i imagine how he got there, the situation from the lines, how much time he spent there and which tools he had, and maybe even what he was thinking. A normal person would only think about the look and the style of it, but someone who is doing it can feel and relate to someone elses drawing. Some 7 years ago i was seeing in my hometown stencil drawings which was saying:ART AREA. It was painted in the town everywhere where graffiti writers were active, and i loved it, i smiled every time ive seen this stencil. I told this to my friend, who was doing stuff like me too and she just smiled and said: yeah those are my sprayings. That moment was absolutely chatartic. For me graffiti is mainly not art because of the details or the proffessionalism, but the kind of secret binding it can create between people, who dont even know each other personally, but in a way they are still family.

  2. Nero Wolfe

    "Hobo" — I just love how previous generations of Americans sanitized, normalized, and even romanticized extreme poverty and homelessness. Truly the "Greatest Generation." /s

  3. CarrowMind

    This is what gave Tolkien the idea for the "thief rune" Gandalf etched on Bilbo's door so that the Dwarves would know where to knock in "The Hobbit".

  4. Ravenofthedog

    I once saw a scribble on a bathroom stall that said ; “ please keep this stall nice. I live here.” With a stick figure underneath.

  5. dom

    Hey 0:08 is from Toronto! There’s illegal graffiti all around the place, but I guess everyone is respectful enough to keep off of the art

  6. Dadson worldwide

    Vox has the wildest left wing veiw of everything. as if thier was a united hobo orginization like a tribe of nomads.truth is most were troubled souls or lazy drunks .They werent called tramps because they were high up standing people.
    People just doodle when thier bord. 5,000 bc when the weather was bad or sitting on a elevate rock hunting food mankind doodled. What peopke do dpesmt always have to be for a reason other than doimg it to do it.

  7. PeriwinkleFilms

    When I was really little, I thought all graffiti was done by hobos to communicate with one another. So it's cool to know that it was indeed a thing.

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