Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Hoboes and boxcar graffiti August 9, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:46 PM
Boxcar graffiti

Boxcar graffiti

Boxcar graffiti intrigues me, always has, thanks to my Grandma Ida who once regaled me with tales of train-hopping transients.

Hoboes, she pegged them, almost with disdain. Men looking for work while riding the rails. Men occasionally hired as cheap labor on the farm she and grandpa worked in Redwood County.

Details and names have long been forgotten, gone with grandma. But the mystique of these hoboes, these homeless, remains.

I see their faces in graffiti-covered boxcars, lingering memories of men who once splashed their artwork upon the rolling canvas.

Today the traveling art venues mostly showcase the work of taggers and gang members and high school kids bent on raising a little, well you know what, on a Friday night after the football game. At least that’s what I think.

The problem lies in separating good from bad. Evil from innocent. Some would argue that all boxcar graffiti rates as vandalism. Maybe. But I see the artistic element in carefully shaped block letters and scrawls and images.

When I stopped recently to view several rail cars side-lined in Faribault, I tried to figure it all out. I couldn’t. The letters made no sense, formed nothing I could understand. Good words? Bad words? I simply could not tell.

So, even though I got some fantastic photos of the graffiti-covered boxcars, I can’t share all of them. You will get only snippets of what I photographed.

But above the graffiti, I discovered an unexpected memorable icon—Tropic-Ana, retired symbol for Tropicana orange juice. Refrigerated boxcars once transported the juice from Florida to northern states. It’s been years since I’ve seen Tropic-Ana, who’s been replaced by the more politically-correct straw-stuck-in-an-orange.

I circled the boxcars, studied the hitches and wheels and signs and warning words. And wondered about all of that graffiti. Who had spray painted it there? What did it say? And what did it mean?

Artwork on a traveling canvas

Artwork on a traveling canvas

Tropic-Ana pushes orange juice.

Tropic-Ana pushes orange juice.

Instructions for opening a boxcar

Instructions for opening a boxcar

Sidelined rail car

Side-lined rail car

Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


2 Responses to “Hoboes and boxcar graffiti”

  1. Hello.
    I really like reading your work!
    I’m very new, since yesterday, to this website and hope to find lots more to read.
    I have hundreds of my hobo trip photos at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30715417@N04/

    Anyway, take care and talk to you soon.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      My goodness, a real, honest-to-goodness hobo! My grandma always spun stories about hobos while I was growing up. She was a good storyteller.

      I have one question for you, Shoestring. How do boxcar “artists” manage to paint train cars without getting caught? Do you participate in this art? I kind of admire this “art,” even if some consider it graffiti.

      Thank you for visiting Minnesota Prairie Roots. Glad you enjoyed my writing and photography.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.