Graffiti’s roots reach back as far as the earliest cave paintings. The first known example of the “modern style” comes from the ancient Greek city of Ephesus: a pictograph promoting a nearby brothel scrawled along a stone walkway. Railroad graffiti began in earnest during the 1920s and especially the Depression years of the 1930s, as hobos and even some railroad workers made chalk drawings on freight cars to mark their presence. That practice continues in the 21st century; drawings made by “Colossus of Roads” are among the most popular. They feature a stylized head wearing a cowboy hat and a short verse or enigmatic musing.
The larger and more graphic style of graffiti now known as tagging originated in east coast cities in the 1960s as part of hip hop culture. New York City subway cars were early targets; the practice soon spread to boxcars and other railroad freight cars. Today’s taggers run the gamut from stereotypical troubled youth to white collar office workers who moonlight with spray cans.
Railroad graffiti became a photography subject almost from its inception. Approached by both railroad enthusiasts and general photographers, it has spawned print publications, exhibitions, websites and extensive online photo-sharing groups. While most of these photographs show entire cars or complete tags, we recently discovered a photographer with a fresh approach.
Andrea Fuhrman of Abilene, Kansas, employs long telephoto lenses and macro-photography to make close-up images of railroad graffiti on freight cars she finds parked next to public roads. Her work looks beyond the messages of the tags themselves to find shapes, patterns, colors and textures. She traces this interest to childhood experiences with her father’s microscope. “When I was a small child…I would spend hours peering through his microscope, looking at the little tiny worlds full of paramecium, stains of flowing colors. I would look at a strand of my hair, my fingernail. I grew mold on bread. The world was a very exciting place in miniature.”
“My fascination with miniscule imagery continues. When photographing, I magnify very small segments of an image to show the beauty inherent in what has caught my eye. I began photographing in my early thirties when I purchased my first camera—a Pentax K1000—and took it across country to shoot decaying architecture and small towns. My only lens was a 70-210mm because of my ongoing preference for close-up shots.
“After my cross-country trip, I realized I wanted to be an artist. One afternoon in a vehicle salvage yard, I focused on tiny—as little as a pinky fingernail—segments of paint on a truck. It was the first of many abstract studies. I realized that I needed to go to art school and began taking classes.
“After moving to Abilene, Kansas, I became interested in the trains on the sidings that were parked—sometimes for hours, sometimes days or weeks—that were painted with layers of graffiti, rust, and markings. (Trains rolled by and rattled our building nearby day and night.) Trains were the “art supply” that was most available in Abilene and the neighboring towns. Abilene was the end of the Chisholm Trail and had been the railhead site where cattle were sold and taken east to market. Today, trains bring coal through Abilene, and I learned that coal was used to write graffiti in ancient Greece and Rome. Now it’s the material transported in cars painted with graffiti.
“Given my prior interest in responding to something, an image, a mark, it was understandable that I would react to train graffiti. I’m certainly not condoning the defacement of private property. The paint was already there, and over-painted and rusted. I use a Canon Power Shot Pro digital camera in super-macro mode to maintain a microscopic format, with a tripod, sampling small compositions that would fill the frame. I capture what I conceive are abstract paintings, weathered by time, erosion, the grinding of trains in motion and the impact of heavy use. After shooting the trains, I use both Photoshop and iPhoto to manipulate and alter the colors—saturate, sharpen, edit, etc. I’ve managed to take thousands of abstract train (graffiti) images since I started in 2008.
“In 2009, I was invited to participate in the Salina (Kansas) Art Center’s Artist Exchange program. I took lots of photos in preparation for the exhibit and also made a DVD slide loop of some 500 images to run on an HDTV, in addition to showing hard copy photographs. One of my digital images was used as the design for the Kenwood Cove Water Park in Salina for an 11×36-foot Mexican Byzantine smalti glass mosaic mural as part of the wave pool. It is the first thing one sees when entering the park.
“I am recognizing and documenting something that I think is beautiful. I capture only diminutive segments of a railroad car. I like the quote by Gauguin who states, ‘all art is either plagiarism or revolution.’”
ANDREA FUHRMAN is a member of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art and an artist in Abilene, Kan. She has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her self-published book of railroad graffiti photographs is available for purchase.
SCOTT LOTHES, Madison, Wis., is executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. As a photographer and writer, he is a frequent contributor to Trains Magazine and www.TrainsMag.com.