RAILROAD FAME – Moniker: Identity Lost and Found explores the people and folklore of American rail yard graffiti at the Massillon Museum

Before the internet spread aerosol-painted, hip-hop style across the world, the word “graffiti” did not instantly conjure the wildly colorful, mural-sized graphics that all but define the term these days. Graffiti is as old as walls, of course, and its history is woven with diverse threads and intentions.

A deeply informed exhibit at the Massillon Museum of Art explores one of these threads, a subtle current of mark-making that was born in American railroad yards of the late nineteenth century. Moniker: Identity Lost and Found explores rail yard graffiti—the marks left mostly by railroad workers—which now travels the nation in folklore and on trains. These marks seem to be motivated by much the same kind of ego as hip-hop graffiti has been in the last forty or fifty years. But instead of the shout of aerosol color, the art is practiced with a whisper, in one color with oil stick—essentially oil paint combined with wax to create an easily portable crayon. They won’t spill in your backpack, and they don’t overspray.

Created by project director Scot Phillips and guest curator Andy Dreamingwolf, with artist liaison Kurt Tors, Moniker explores some of the oldest marks and the lore that surrounds them through photographs, printed material, and artifacts, including original monikers, some of which were rescued with saws from their doomed surroundings. It is extensively researched. Ultimately, through an impressive collection of marks made for the exhibit on steel plates, it follows the practice into the railyards of the present.

Make no mistake that painting or marking on trains or any other person’s property is illegal, and it remains so even when it’s celebrated in galleries. So it is not surprising that some historic aspects of the exhibit remain mysterious even with impressive documentation, and that some parts that relate to living people remain cloaked in secrecy.

Andy Dreamingwolf was the link between rail yard culture and the world of galleries and museums. Cleveland knows him for his technically skilled paintings, often of nostalgic objects, including a beautifully-painted but dark series of antique, largely narcotic pharmaceutical bottles. He also happens to be a collector of artifacts related to rail yard graffiti, and most of the exhibit comes from his own collection. It was through that anonymous culture that he met Kurt Tors, a rail fan “from a small, east coast town,” who would become the exhibit’s “artist liaison.” Tors and Dreamingwolf traveled the country together for three years, gathering material and documenting the culture. Dreamingwolf says they shopped the exhibit proposal to several regional museums, and that Massillon gave them the best offer. They made a good choice: Director Alexandra Coon says people from 32 states and Canada came to the opening, and that other museums have inquired about the possibility of sending the show on tour. Perhaps it will be loaded into a train car.

The exhibit opens with what Dreamingwolf says is the oldest known photograph of a moniker—the distinctively loopy scrawl of JB King, Esquire. The curatorial team discovered the photo in the form of a glass plate negative in the museum’s own collection. It’s an image of a Pennsylvania Line engine and coal car, taken on the occasion of the 1914 collapse of a roundhouse on Penn Avenue in Massillon, not far from where the museum stands today. Above the rubble of the collapsed building, the JB King moniker is clearly visible on the side of the coal car, over the shoulder of a portly man in a bowler hat.

The signature is an elaborate flourish, and that—in combination with the uncertain identity of the mark maker—reveal a strong connection to the contemporary graffiti practice of tags: Quick, distinctive, one-color flourishes with invented names that simply say, “I was here.” In both cases the marks are proliferated in as many places as possible to spread their mysterious fame.

The photo is from 1914, but the moniker is rumored to have origins dating to the 1850s. Multiple people have claimed to be its originator, and folklore describes JB King as having had several rail yard roles, from switchman to fireman to yardmaster. In some cases he has been described as that mythical, romanticized character of the road, the millionaire hobo—beginning in a 1945 article in the Saturday Evening Post. The ongoing life of JB King epitomizes something important about moniker culture: what begins with ego, a declaration that a person exists, is sometimes taken up by others and spread, eventually becoming property of the culture at large. In the case of JB King, that included a foothold in popular culture. The 1960 movie Chartroose Caboose had a character named JB King, Esquire, and by the seventies, a series of liquor ads credited JB King with the invention of a bottled cocktail known as the Hobo’s Wife. People continue to make the mark as a tribute in the 21st century.

It’s worth distinguishing rail yard graffiti from hobo graffiti. The key is in their intent. While hobo graffiti has a vocabulary of symbols intended to help other travelers find their way to hospitality and to warn of hazards, including unfriendly police, railroad monikers—like hip-hop tags—are more about the identity of the mark maker, and the spread of his fame.

Another highlight of the exhibit is an original mark by the legendary character, Bozo Texino, celebrated in Bill Daniel’s 2005 film, Who Is Bozo Texino? The example in the exhibit was made on a piece of wood molding, removed from a decommissioned Taylor, Texas railroad depot in 1978, and is here on loan from a private collection. It’s a drawing of a man in a derby and bow tie, with the name Bozo Texino printed in capital letters beneath. Seeing such aged and original artifacts is, for the faithful, perhaps, a bit like seeing relics of saints in a church. The Bozo Texino mark originated with James Herbert McKinley, who was born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1893 and started writing his moniker in 1919. Backstories like this one will make visitors want to spend time with the text that accompanies the exhibit. McKinley worked for the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf Railroad, then the Missouri Pacific Railroad where he became an engineer in 1928. In 1939 he claimed to have made his mark on both sides of a quarter million freight cars. That year he told the San Antonio Light that the name originated with a nephew who called him “Bo,” to which he added “zo” to echo “Laredo,” where he was working at the time, making Bozo Laredo his original signature. Then he moved to San Antonio, where he changed the second part of the name to accommodate his new surroundings, combining “Texas” and “Mexico” to make Bozo Texino.

The ephemeral nature of graffiti has always been a part of its reality and its appeal, in the way that death defines life. But unlike aerosol graffiti in cities, which often is obliterated by another layer of paint (artistic or otherwise), railroad monikers usually meet their end with the passage of time and the effects of weather. The Massillon exhibit has an object that embodies this trajectory in an original “Palm Tree Herby,” a two-foot tall drawing on steel of a sombrero-wearing man sitting with his back against a palm tree, dated and signed. The image seen on the panel was originally made with an oil stick, but almost all of that medium is gone. What remains is the ghost of the image—steel that is cleaner and less oxidized than the rest of the surface, having been protected by the scrawl of oil and wax.

Palm Tree Herby—born Herbert A. Mayer in 1918—is rumored to have made his mark on 700,000 freight cars. He said he averaged about thirty seconds per drawing, and that he could “go around a freight train with 120 cars in about thirty minutes.” He stayed anonymous until 1980—the date on the drawing in the exhibit—because he learned of people selling things branded with his drawing, without his permission. He passed away in 1995, but some of his marks still travel the country on boxcars.

Moniker culture is alive today, with contemporary artists continuing to make original marks, as well as re-creating the legendary ones in tribute. The Massillon Museum exhibit captures this in dramatic style with a collection of 35 oil stick monikers on heavy, 19-inch-square steel panels created for the exhibit, with the intent that they stay in the museum’s permanent collection. The curatorial team gathered them by shipping and delivering the panels, sometimes in person, across the US. In this way original, contemporary marks from Colossus of Roads, Coaltrain, The Rambler, Smokin’ Joe, The Solo Artist, Swampy, and many others—including at least one practitioner from Cleveland—impressively dominate the gallery’s largest wall.

The exhibit delves into the stories of many more rail yard artists, through photos, letters, objects, books, magazine accounts. The Massillon Museum calls it “an unprecedented documentation” of moniker culture, and that is easy to believe. They have pieced together the picture from an enormous range of fragments and presented them in a way that makes it a compelling story of American identity and the myth of the road in the twentieth century. They clearly have connected with an audience: the first printing of a 144-page, hard-bound and full-color catalog sold out quickly. Anyone interested in graffiti, railroads, or American folklore should plan to give it some time, expect to do some reading, and prepare to be enchanted with the details of other people’s lives and adventures.

Moniker: Identity Lost and Found opened June 23 and continues through October 21 at the Massillon Museum’s main gallery.