Riding the Rails delves into the secret world of railroad graffiti

Anyone who's spent any time waiting for a passing train knows that railroad cars routinely get tagged or bombed by graffiti writers. But what you might not have noticed are a more subtle form of railroad graffiti called "monikers." These simple grease marker line drawings were originally created by railroad workers with a creative itch, but the form later became adopted by vagrants and street artists as well. Moniker writers tell jokes, comment on the news, record where they've traveled, and more. This folk artwork is part of a larger exhibition about railroads, which gets a one-day show at Ann Arbor's Zal Gaz Grotto Masonic club. We spoke to show organizer and railroad art buff Chuck Damage to learn more.

Metro Times: So how do monikers differ from other types of railroad graffiti?

Chuck Damage: If you have a spray-painted piece on a car, that's like yelling compared to a moniker, which is like a whisper. You have to actively seek these out, because a lot of them are very small, and they're just line drawings. A lot of times carmen draw them, like the guys who fix the cars. Like say they replace the brake shoes. They'll draw a little picture, because they inspected the car. They'll know when they go back tomorrow that they inspected that car.

MT: So they're small?

Damage: There's a guy from I believe the Boston area, and he makes a mark that is probably 3 inches square. Then there are guys who do, like, giant line drawings. I'd see the cars rolling by with the big pieces on them, and I never really saw monikers until I started looking. It originated by employees, but then it went to like, hobos, and train-riders, and now it's a little bit of everyone. It's probably still a majority of railroad employees.

MT: What kind of things do monikers say?

Damage: All kinds of things. There's this artist, Tex Goth, who has this cool bat that he draws. He wrote "Tigerblood" under one, right at the end of that whole Charlie Sheen thing. I thought it was the funniest thing.

In the movie Beautiful Losers, there's a clip of the artists Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee. Man, she explains it perfectly. If you end up watching the whole movie, and you end up not shedding a tear by the end, I'll give you a high-five.

MT: Is this show dedicated solely to monikers?

Damage: It's all art that's inspired by the railroad. There's gonna be a large sculpture there, a locomotive where people can actually sit in it. There's gonna be a lot of photographs, paintings on canvasses, painted bottles, and model railroad cars that the graffiti artists paint.

MT: Bottles? Like glass bottles?

Damage: Glass bottles, yeah. A lot of guys would find liquor bottles on the side of the track and then paint them. The artists trade bottles with each other. Some people sell them, but mostly they just trade.

MT: Are there some big names in the moniker world in this show?

Damage: Yes, yes. I was pleasantly surprised by the response that I got, because a lot of big names in the more underground graffiti realm have sent stuff — Lamps, Ed Haskell, Tex Goth, Aaron Dickerson, Noz, Graffiti Hunter Society, Whiskey River, Brute, Kwiz, Jon Larsen, Janet Nelson, and Chris Rodriguez, among others.

MT: I like how it's this secret art scene, and it's being held in a Masonic bar, which is like a another secret club. Was it hard to reach out to these artists?

Damage: People like, get on the Freemasons for being all secretive and stuff, and these people are so tight. It took months.

It's not gonna be a typical art show. There might be some stinky cheese, but probably not an overabundance. And the wine will more than likely be boxed. If anything, I'd say it's more like a blue-collar art show, if that makes any sense.

From 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday, April 4 at Zal Gaz Grotto No. 34 2070 West Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor; 734-663-1202; zalgaz.org; free admission. Donations accepted to benefit the club's "Coats for Kids" fund.

About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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