BEAUTIFYING THE RAILS
The following interview is the result of correspondence between myself and photographers Jeff Bass and Scott Lothes. Jeff is a particularly well-rounded photographer who had done some notable photos in the past of what he terms “boxcar art.” Scott at that time was living on the island of Hokkaido, in Japan, and was shooting a long series of photos highlighting what he called “man-made Japan” — the under-photographed landscape of less-than-idyllic, man-made concrete engineering monstrosities. Both photographers, then, were working with subject matter that was often considered to be unappealing, and both had some interesting insights about photographing rail graffiti.
Jeff Bass: …I see two forms of graffiti in the railroad environment; the aerosol tags and murals, and then the chalk or paint stick sketches and monikers, also done with markers. I rarely see an aerosol tag that I like or would consider a work of art, while on the other hand I find the paint stick and chalk style monikers interesting…. Some have historical and cultural value, others are art in my eyes, to the point I call these monikers “boxcar art.”
Scott Lothes: The small, simple writings and drawings by hoboes and railroaders often add a great deal of history, mystery and intrigue to a passing freight train, like fleeting glimpses to the words of an old story. Multi-colored spray-paintings that cover most of a freight car usually leave me shaking my head in disgust. Perhaps it’s a matter of respect? Hoboes’ and railroaders’ lives depend on the trains. Taggers seem much less tied to them.
Q: Specific to graffiti, what are your thoughts on it? Do you photograph it? Do you feel such photography is glorifying it or giving it a pass?
Scott Lothes: I’ve never photographed railroad graffiti, but after this discussion… I might. Such photography can be both glorifying and condemning, and again, it most often depends on the photographers’ motives. …In Vietnam, I did photograph some graffiti on the walls of a cave in Halong Bay, a world heritage site. I photographed as a reaction to my disgust over the graffiti being there, and I think that disgust was carried into my photographs. On the other hand, I see no reason why a photographer who’s enamored by a freshly-tagged freight car couldn’t take a photograph to glorify that graffiti as art. It’s all in the perspective, and the perspective comes from the motives.
Jeff Bass: The aerosol graffiti is not something that I like to see or document. However, I will photograph an unusual or extreme aerosol piece from time to time. I just don’t identify with the aerosol mentality. I find it intrusive, selfish, and vandalism. From my perspective, it is all about destroying and defacing someone else’s property to make one’s own personal statement or mark. Hopefully to be seen by rival krews or the general public or whoever their target audience might be…
Q: Do you think that a photographer has responsibility in any way for the actions he or she is photographing? Is a war correspondent partially responsible for the war he or she photographs, for example?
Scott Lothes: In the purest sense, no. And by the purest sense, I mean the photographer as the invisible observer. In reality, photographers can be quite visible, and their presence does not go without notice, nor without effects. But that’s getting complicated, so for the sake of this argument, let’s stick to the purest sense, where the photographer has no responsibility for his or her subject matter. Where the photographer’s responsibility begins lies in his or her motives.
Jeff Bass: …I haven’t photographed an aersoler in the act yet. I have spent many hours in places that they might be present or actually spraying. Many times I have seen youngsters, like junior high aged, walking along a string of cars with cans in their hands…. I don’t see how a photographer of graffiti could be held responsible for the spray painting antics of others, just because the photographer is documenting the scene before their eyes days, weeks, months or even years after the act of painting had been done. However, if I had photos of vandalism in progress in my camera, I am sure a detective would question my involvement in the damage done.
The concept of leaving your name or mark on an object has been around for decades or even centuries. I realize that carving your name in a tree trunk or on a sandstone monument [in the] west in the 1850s is a little different than leaving your mark on someone else’s property, corporate or otherwise. This drive or desire to leave a mark behind seems to be an inherent quality of most graffitiers.
Q: You mentioned that you don’t see many parallels between your work in Japan — which emphasizes the “ugly/manmade” side of a country often thought of in naturalistic/idealistic terms — but that you do see parallels in your photography of coal trains. What’s different about those two subjects that makes you feel some form of responsibility in photographing the latter, but not the former?
Scott Lothes: The biggest difference is motives…. In Japan, I’ve been drawn into the manmade landscapes by my surprise and disgust at their existence. I’ve researched them, and have found very little to justify them. The ultimate goal of my photography is to raise awareness.
Contrast that to my photography of coal trains in Appalachia, where one of my primary goals has been to depict a harmonious relationship between the railroads and the land. As an efficient means of transportation, that harmonious relationship exists. But when the freight being transported is the land itself, the harmony in that relationship starts to sound out of tune….
To summarize, I feel better about my motives in Japan. I’m trying to call attention to a little-known, destructive practice. In Appalachia, I’ve been trying to glorify an industry that may be far more destructive than I’ve realized. Yet, I can still see beauty in it. I’m caught in a paradox, a paradox that seems very similar to the one you outlined in your thoughts on graffiti.
Jeff Bass: Relating to boxcar art, I took some time to attempt to get behind the writer or artist’s mind…. I discovered that many of the artists were actually railroad employees, which surprised me. …Some of these artists took on fictitious identities similar to… hoboes, and continue to mark-up in a similar style….
Boxcar art seems to have a nostalgic and artistic means of carrying on the hoboes form of communication. The marks have evolved from signs of warning to a personal sketch or moniker left on rolling stock, with a feel of the WWII era’s “Kilroy Was Here.” The prolific and well known artists have this feel, such as Herby and Bozo Texino, both of whom have passed on, but their legacy and their marks continue to re-appear.
Scott Lothes: Something might be wonderfully beautiful and terribly exploitive at the same time, and I might say that you should photograph it. And if your intent, your motive, is to show both the beauty and the exploitativeness, (and I think photography can show both,) then you can sleep with a clear conscience.
Jeff Bass: Would the same sketch, moniker, or even aerosol piece be seen as art if its canvas was not the steel side of a passing boxcar, or the side of neighborhood building or fence? Does the substrate dictate the artistic value of an artist’s endeavors?
Probably the most prolific boxcar artist would be buZ blurr, the man behind the ever present sketch of “Colossus of Roads.” His popular sketch depicts a profile of a cowboy with a five gallon cowboy hat. The style accents the train’s movement with smoke trailing behind the cowboy’s pipe or cigarette. Just below the sketch, buZ adds some sort of short phrase or odd mix of words that he invents for each day, which he calls “dispatches.” One can argue that his work is a far cry from art, but his daily dispatches are thought provoking, quizzical, comical, and many times downright confusing. Like many other boxcar artists, he is a lifelong railroader, using his time trackside to share his sketch and thoughts with others that see the rolling steel canvas.
Q: Perhaps more philosophically, can something be both wrong and beautiful?
Scott Lothes: Actually, this is the easiest of the [questions] for me to answer: yes. Even if the steam engine is the single greatest cause for catastrophic climate changes, I will still think it a beautiful machine. Viewed from a great distance, the explosion of an atomic bomb can be visually stunning, even if thousands of lives were extinguished in that moment. The adulterous sex between a married man and a married woman can be beautifully passionate, even if the hearts of both their spouses are breaking because of it. Beauty chooses no sides in the great moral debate.
Jeff Bass: Yes, in my eyes, boxcar art is both wrong and beautiful. I see it as both. I think that we can get most to agree that all graffiti is “wrong,” no problem there. It would be a stretch to think that we could even get a sizable percentage to call graffiti “beautiful.” Most graffiti is an eye-sore and a complete hassle for the property owner. Many graffiti artists don’t hold the typical values when it comes to personal or corporate ownership of property. They feel it is theirs to write on, their own personal canvas. I would also venture to say that they think that all of their work is beautiful. They would hold the minority opinion here. So with those perspectives, graffiti is both “wrong” and “beautiful”.