Colossus of Roads
Interview by Gabe the Saint
50mm Staff Writer
Years ago on my way to school, I would cross the railroad tracks as a short
cut into the eastside of town. It was here in this small train lay over where I
first encountered aerosol style graffiti on freight cars. I was intrigued with the
idea that a piece could actually travel around the country on a rolling canvas.
Because of my new discovery, I made sure that I took the shortcut across
the tracks everyday. As time progressed, I began paying attention to other
details of the trains... bolts and hinges... coupling systems, the cryptic
numbers and other details of the rolling stock. That's when I first noticed the
simple but iconic one-color grease pen drawings. They seemed to be
present on every car... Many of the drawings included dates that at times
approached 3 or 4 decades in age. Some were barely discern-able drawings
of skulls or hand written names. Others seemed carefully branded and
particularly stylish... Most note-able to me was a white line drawing of a
bearded man with a large brimmed cowboy hat. The friendly looking
character was streamlined as though still in motion, yearning to get
back on the rails to parts unknown. I wasn't sure of its origin or the author. A
hobo? Rail worker? Freight hopper? Years later "Who is Bozo Texino" a
recent documentary has cleared up a lot of the mythology about what are
largely known as "boxcar monikers." I was able to track down one of the
most prolific boxcar artists and talked with him about the culture and history
of this phenomenon. His handle is Colossus of Roads. He is a third
generation rail worker in his 60's and he has worked the railways for more
than 30 years...
GTS: Many people are in the dark about boxcar artists. What motivates
them? Is this a form of art?
Colossus of Roads: Hard to explain man's basic need to mark his territory,
but the expansion from cavemen walls to the billboards of rolling boxcars
offered an opportunity for expression in the industrial revolution too delicious
to resist for those prone to pursue it. The practice of chalking the cars was
required of the various trades of the railroads. Be it the mechanical forces
communicating a specific problem on bad ordered cars to the repair
employees at the rip track, or the switch foreman chalking the abbreviated
destinations of cars to communicate with the other crewmembers, and to aid
in their recall. The marking materials were provided by the railroads. Others
eventually recognized the distinctive styling of a person's markings. The
availability of chalk afforded a means of expression beyond the mundane
tasks of railroad trades. The tramps and hobos utilized it to communicate
monikers or aliases, and devised a code of symbols to denote the hostility or
hospitality of any given community along the route. Jack London wrote a
story about his futile pursuit of another hobo with the moniker "Skysail Jack",
simply because of the similarity with his own, "Sailor Jack", by hopping
freights chalked and dated by the pursued.
I like to call the marking of the cars by railroad workers and hobos a folk art
I'll not argue if it's art or not.
GTS: Why do you write on Boxcars?
Colossus of Roads: To me the crux of the biscuit, the message of the
medium, is to have a huge number of images out riding in the network, to
have a vast presence, yet remain anonymous and thus mysterious. It was
also a means of _expression, to sing the blues for someone with the inability
to play the flattop box, or moan the mean mistreatment by singing, but could
mark the boxcars. Captioning the icon with language which questioned my
practice, such as "Resignation or Resistance?" where Zen koans to ponder.
Was I resigned to the adherence to a complete career, or a screaming
resistance by dispatching errant ersatzs? Recent research has revealed a
named malady I felt explained the appeal of the repetitious acts and my
penchant for inappropriateness, in Asperger's Disorder, named after the
Viennese psychologist who delineated the symptoms of this form of autism.
Although it seemed to negate the artist excuse, it was a relief to know I could
blame mental illness for my shameful and infantile vandalism.
GTS: Who are the first boxcar artists that you remember seeing up? Who is/
was the most prolific of all time?
Colossus of Roads: ...Herby was the most prevalent practitioner through
most of my career. Bozo Texino, Tuscan Red (the raised left ankle nude
saying "Hi", so named by Larry Penn), Don A, Charlie Brown, Stinky, Ol' Bob,
Kid Idaho, and The Rambler were up a lot when I was attracted to the
practice. I would say the most prolific of all time would be the complete loop
signature of J.B.KingEsq. which has spanned more than a century, although
by numerous authors.
GTS: Tell me about your particular moniker.... the style and motion... How did
this image evolve? Have you ever drawn anything else?
Colossus of Roads: .It is supposed to be a rider motif variation to the pipe
smoking cowboy icon of the original Bozo Texino. My initial icon of a deadpan
character had reached its definitive moniker in "gypsysphinx", so I was
searching around for another image to replace it, absent minded stoned
doodling in my sketchbook revealed a visitation from a ghost of the net, Bozo
Texino. The icon gradually evolved to signify, hopefully, a cowboy hat-ed, big
billowy bearded, pipe smoking escapee, on the lam.
GTS: You seem to always accompany the image with a message.
"My intended purpose of
dispatching the maximum number of icons with the least amount of effort, has
turned into a real chore..."
-Colossus of Roads
Often it appears personally encrypted and other times poetic. Does the
process of drawing inspire the message or does the message come to you
beforehand and inspire you to draw... As though something is on your mind
and you need to express it....
Colossus of Roads: ...The redundancy of the icon applied as quickly and
automatically as possible requires some form of variation, and the use of
language, in the form of anecdote titles, alter egos, fantasies, lamentations,
and brief histories, or concrete poems, if you will, is surely the purpose.
GTS: Do you care about the so-called "gallery art" world? You've said that
you have drawn more self -portraits than Picasso, Rembrandt, and Van
Gogh. Are they artists that inspire you?
Colossus of Roads: I've had the "gallery art" experience and it left a dour
impression. Perhaps more acceptance of my work would have seduced me
to the form. That referencing of the biggies who made self-portraits was
GTS: Freights have become a popular medium for aerosol graffiti artists in
the last two decades. How do you feel about them? Do you mind sharing
your space with them?
Colossus of Roads: My intended purpose of dispatching the maximum
number of icons with the least amount of effort, has turned into a real chore
since it is so hard to get any kind of network accumulation account of the
hazards of weathering in the elements of nature combined with the more
destructive covering of my work by spray-painting hordes now that it is so
trendy. The acceptance of impermanence as a fact of life is the main
statement in this Vita Brevis ballet, but it is hard not to despair when you see
so much of your work covered. I wouldn't mind them covering the image,
which is a given constant, but the language memory nudge is usually what is
obscured. Historical erasure of the sloganeer. It has become an open
medium, so as long as I indulge in the practice I cannot limit others.
GTS: Have you caught any aerosol graffiti artist "red handed?"
Colossus of Roads: I live in such an out of the way place I haven't
encountered any spray-paint people. If I did I certainly wouldn't be
GTS: When will you hang up the paint sticks? It seems like freight monikers
are sometimes handed down... Do you mind another artist carrying on your
Colossus of Roads: Certainly would be easy to embrace the rocking chair
and stay on the porch, but I'm still urged on by the instincts to continue my
Main Sledge / Major Opus even as futile as it seems.I would be honored if
someone continued the tradition of marking the American loner outsider riding
the rails out in the network, but I would hope the image would mimic the
author's own identity and individuality, should that transpire.
GTS: Are you religious?
Colossus of Roads: There a caption to my icon out there somewhere, which
addresses this question. "Schooled: Church of The Level Track", a
reference to my own family dedication to the supremacy of the railroad as
provider of livelihood, given that both my father and grandfather were
railroad men in track maintenance, and in the case of my father, required to
move all over the system to the degree, we were never integrated into any
community, especially church, where we seemed to be decidedly poorer
than the other parishioners, thus kicking in our shame-based aversion. For
that reason I tried determining the human condition explained more by
philosophy than religion. Although I never attend church much, I've certainly
been subjected to many sermons of condemnation by Bible scholars and
deacons, awaiting trains in sidings, in switchman shanties, and depot
evangelists' warnings of Hell. In the face of this berating I viewed Nietzsche's
Will to Power about right as explaining human motives, but the absence of
God and the aspiration to Heaven can cause greater harm to the collective
psyche of mankind than the continuing atrocities of delusional righteous
divine inspiration. Yin/Yang measure of all the world's dualities has me on the
sidelines contemplating my navel as a Zen Existentialist.
GTS: How do you feel about America? Do you pay much mind to politics?
Colossus of Roads: I love America. I am an American.
Of course I mind the path of America at the moment, now that the fascists
subverted the 2000 election, and started a war that was the dumbest foreign
policy move in the history of the nation, especially as a tactic for fighting
global terrorism, the new paradigm of east/west world split Holy Wars. The
arrogance of power caused our Oedipal Prez Rich Boy to be provoked by
pleb Osama Rich Boy into attacking the usurper to Babylon, thus giving a
rallying point for radicalism in Islam. It may seem absurd to think America's
moral compass will ever be back to true, but that is my wish. But what do I
know, I'm a liberal democrat.
GTS: Any last words?
Presumptuous Colossus of Roads: Yes, Peace Please!
GTS: Thank you for your time...