A History of Railroad Graffiti – And How to Add Graffiti to your Model Train Layout

Graffiti is an emotive topic. S

imply mention the word and you’ll elicit responses that range from “vandalism” to “artistic genius” and several degrees in-between. Regardless, it’s undeniable that graffiti is a noticeable part of modern life, and is particularly prevalent on our railroad system.

When Did the Graffiti Movement Begin?

Pink and blue graffiti on a wall

While some point to cave paintings by ancient civilizations as early evidence of graffiti, it‘s thought that the first example of modern graffiti was found in Philadelphia in the early 1960’s.

It wasn’t until later in that decade that the movement would reach New York City, where in the 1970’s graffiti truly blossomed into popularity.

During this period, New York was on its knees, with half a million jobs lost in the manufacturing industry alone, as the city bore the brunt of a national recession. With nothing to do, young New Yorkers quickly found entertainment in writing their names on the inside of subway cars, which would evolve into alias tags, murals, and other forms of artwork. The appearance of graffiti on the subway and elsewhere was emblematic of the edginess and danger that New York became known for throughout much of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.

Graffiti on US Railroads

Black and white photo of graffiti on a train

In much the same way that ancient civilizations were writing messages on stones thousands of years ago, graffiti in a basic form was present on US railroads from as early as the 1900’s, with its presence growing during the Great Depression.

During these times, hobos – those traveling the country looking for work and hitching a ride on freight trains – and even some railroad workers became known for creating chalk drawings and murals on the inside and outside of cars.

Today, the most visible railroad graffiti can be seen on buildings, retaining walls, and infrastructure from commuter trains, or on the boxcars, tank cars, and other rolling stock which appear on freight consists.

The origin of freight car graffiti can be traced directly to the Subway artists of the 1970’s. As the movement grew, taggers would cover both the outside and inside of trains, some going to great lengths to produce undeniable works of art. Such was the level of public outcry against subway graffiti however, that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was forced to secure new rolling stock with stainless steel construction, which was easier to clean on both the exterior and interior, putting an end to this trend by the 1990s. 

Freight Train Graffiti in the US

Green and black graffiti on a train car.

One of the most interesting things about graffiti on US railroads is the accompanying subculture which has developed along with it, which often differs from the other forms seen on urban transit systems or in cities. 

In cities, graffitiing the subway was a part of a wider practice which also incorporated street level tagging on buildings, bridges, and on the infrastructure related to the subway system. In contrast, freight train graffitists tend to stick solely to freight cars and won’t tag other places.

While this subculture came into existence around the same time subway graffiti became popular, it really took off during the 1980’s. As newer trains with more graffiti resistant materials were introduced, many artists became frustrated that their creations were being quickly washed away to create a sense of law and order. Prosecutions of graffiti artists also increased during this time. In order to avoid what was almost becoming persecution in some neighborhoods, and for their artwork to be maintained for longer – as well as being able to see it travel across the United States – many graffiti artists turned to freight trains and left the subway, and the streets, behind.

Why is Graffiti Still Practiced, and is it Legal to do so?

Green, white, and black graffiti on a train car.

It wasn’t long after the emergence of the graffiti movement that artists moved on from simply tagging and creating cool looking murals to using their hobby as a tool for providing social and political analysis.

Today, graffiti remains a popular form of expression and artwork. Freight cars that carry graffiti are seen by some artists as rolling museums, taking breathtaking works of art across the country, so that millions of Americans can enjoy them at no cost.

While graffiti is generally illegal, there are growing numbers of legal “graffiti walls” and other spots where artists are able to create artwork or leave their tags without fear of repercussions. Despite the rise in places such as these though, freight cars remain a popular canvas for graffitists to display their works.

Learn about some of the most prominent freight train graffitists and check out some of their work here.

Do you have examples of homemade graffiti on your layout? Send us your pictures – we’d love to see what you’ve done!