Culture Shock: Riding That Train, High On Spray Paint

The Art Is Getting Away

John Bear
3 min read
(John Bear)
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I was a teenage tagger. My high school was administered by lapdogs of the dark prince. The only logical way to deal with them was to grab a fat-tipped marker and write a three-, four- or five-letter moniker, probably with the word "one" tacked on to the end (BEARONE, for example). The adults hated graffiti more than anything.

To add a little extra spite, I wrote it across my baseball cap and vehemently denied I was the one who did it. I ended up in the principal’s office frequently. It was there where I learned the power of denying everything.

The tagging, of course, spilled out into the streets of my neighborhood. My mother kept a can of
graffiti removal spray on hand at all times. Sorry, mom.

My career ended suddenly. All of the other taggers hated me. One stuck a loaded
.38 revolver in my face because he felt I had disrespected him in a sketch book. (He later went to prison for armed robbery.)

So I quit caring about graffiti for a long time, even going so far as to hate it. Then I started working at the
Weekly Alibi as the Arts Editor and wrote a story about the street art exhibit over at 516 ARTS. It rekindled my interest. I stop and read the writing on the wall, once again.

I live in
Belen, the home of a large railroad interchange. Dozens of trains are parked on the sprawling yards in the center of town. I stopped by there last week, having not been in several months. The train cars are covered in bright, multicolored art.

Sorry, did I say art? I’m sure the good people at the BNSF Railway Company don’t think it’s art, but vandalism. Still, when French filmmaker
Catherine Breillat was asked if the sex in her films was art or pornography, she said the answer was simple: If you ask the question, it’s art. The same seems to go for graffiti. Art can be vandalism. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. And it might even be better if there are possible legal ramifications accompanying it. It takes a high level of commitment to commit felony property damage in the name artistic expression.

I digress. With spray-can art from all over the North America, the yards of Belen are worth the 30-minute drive. The people who
bomb trains tend to know what they’re doing. Sure, there’s still some of that half-assed scrawling, but most of it’s fascinating—crazy, swirling letters, hard to read but equally hard to look away from. Even more impressive is that it’s done in the dark with the constant threat of police intervention looming. The transient qualities of graffiti are in full bloom here. No two combinations of trains will ever be the same. It’s the sandpainting effect.

Check it out while staying off railroad property. You can look from First Street, which runs parallel. But don’t go on the yard, lest ye incur the wrath of the rail police. Have fun.
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