The idea for ‘Parallel Rails’ began as Easr and I were talking on one of our many walks along the railroad tracks. The name is a representation of two people walking the same line, with neither one falling behind. It’s also a nod to a great article and interview with the legendary freight writer ICHABOD. Easr and I contain parallels much like the tracks themselves. Our interest in freights brought us together, and continues to take us to places we’ve never imagined we’d go.
‘Parallel Rails’ is a zine and a vessel for creating things in the spirit of the railroad. Whether it’s making artwork and paintings inspired by the railroad or zines about train graffiti, we thought the name expressed our shared passion. A big part of our draw to trains and graffiti is finding beauty in the inaccessible, decrepit, and (what most would consider) ugly places.
Historically, most train tracks running through the country bisect cities into two parts – the good and bad sides of town. As far as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live or have lived right by where the trains run. Most people hate the sound of a train horn late at night interrupting their sleep, but I find it comforting – the screeching of the wheels on the rails tells me something is passing by out there. I often wonder about what’s written on that train that I’m missing out on.
Through its sprawling and diverse landscapes, freight trains run for miles, adorned with intricate graffiti from writers all over the U.S. and Mexico.
Our state of Texas is home to many vibrant cultures and art. Through its sprawling and diverse landscapes, freight trains run for miles, adorned with intricate graffiti from writers all over the U.S. and Mexico. They pulse through veins constructed from miles of railroad ties, spikes, and tracks. Throughout the seasons, these giant steel machines also function as a traveling museum. Most trains put on a year-round exhibit for any curious passerby, graffiti writer, traveler, or avid rail fan all over our massive state.
My introduction to freights stemmed from a fascination with not only the art on the trains, but everything involving the railroad. When I was a kid, my dad would take me by the main line in our town before school, and we’d leave pennies for the trains to smash. At that age, freights seemed giant and intimidating, but also enticing. I would just watch trains, and I loved getting stuck behind railroad crossings. As I grew older, I eventually got to travel more, documenting graffiti on freights and on the streets. I paid attention and started recognizing the writers’ names. There’s something so impressive and ballsy about what it takes to paint those steel giants, carrying eras of history along with their cargo.
Recalling his beginnings as a freight writer, Easr remembered, “towards the end of ’98 a couple of cool writers I knew introduced me to the idea of doing our graffiti on freight trains and invited me out on a mission. I was about three years into this game, and I had never painted on a freight before. So when I got the chance, you better believe I was down. In the city I’m from, freights definitely have a presence. Everyone has gotten their car stuck waiting for a train to pass. You just sit back and watch the show, I’ve always said. To me, waiting on a train is dope because you get to see all the graff pass by. Sometimes you even catch one or two of the homies on there. One of my early pieces done that year popped up in is this magazine that another writer brought to my attention. I remember being so surprised, I never thought I would see that piece again. That was a key moment for me, it let me know what I did here in my corner of the country would be seen by people in other places.”
Photographing graffiti on freights is called ‘benching.’ The term originated in New York, where subway graffiti writers would sit and wait at a bench, taking photos of their own pieces as they passed by on the trains they had recently painted. Benching takes time – it’s honestly just a matter of waiting. We could spend hours and hours waiting for one line of freights to pass by, and even then it could result in nothing.
Sometimes you luck out and catch multiple lines with tons of great pieces on them. You never know what you’re going to see or when. Train yards are a little different because trains are being built and are headed out to different cities. You can catch a lot of good graffiti in a busy yard, but you have to be aware of your surroundings if you happen to be trespassing.
Since typography is present in most of our surroundings, we take it for granted. We see stylized letters in advertising, government regulated signs, and anything that requires text. Type is its own form of art. The spray-painted letters we’ve documented on the panels of boxcars, hoppers, grain cars, and autorack train cars passing through our state features a variety of type styles. Every name comes with its own aesthetic. Each letter and design is painstakingly applied to train cars in treacherous, or at the very least not ideal, conditions. These pieces could be created in extreme weather, or while creeping through the dark of train yards.
There are many variables that go into painting a train, like where you find them and if you can pull it off. Accessibility, people’s camps, railroad workers/police, can all pose hindrances to painting a train. There are a lot of different ways to paint a train, too. Sometimes you’ll see a train covered from top to bottom, that’s a ‘whole car.’ Then you’ll see panels painted on either side of a door or a boxcar. An ‘end to end’ is a train car that’s painted from – well it’s sort of self-explanatory.
Often, monikers take the form of stories, designs, poems, anecdotes, and locations that identify who and where the artist is in an effort to leave a message for fellow travellers.
If you look close enough you’ll see white or black drawings decorating train cars. These drawings are known as ‘monikers,’ referring to the hand-drawn illustrations seen on freight trains. These drawings are usually done with a paint stick or industrial marker called a ‘hobo stick’ or ‘streaker.’ Monikers began as a way for train hoppers, hobos, railroad workers, and other traveling people to communicate with each other from coast to coast. Often, monikers take the form of stories, designs, poems, anecdotes, and locations that identify who and where the artist is in an effort to leave a message for fellow travellers. The best time to look for them, and also draw them, is while cars are parked. Between the lines, you can walk along the train and read them from car to car.
This time spent documenting and appreciating the works on the rails has taught us a lot, more than we ever thought we’d know or understand about trains. This interest has made me search for all kinds of information regarding railroad companies, schedules, and history. Still, I’m amazed at how much there is to learn about the rails, but I’m down for it. All of this taught me to not act loud around trains, to respect the workers of the rails, and the unspoken rules of trains.
Texas is incredibly large and hot. We’ve driven hours just to check out a train bridge or some lines where trains may be parked. Walking on miles and miles of ballast can be exhausting in itself, and dehydrating if you’re not prepared. The search for freights, spots, and places to bench has taken us to many strange and unknown places. You can speculate what a spot or rail line will look like, but never know if it’s actually accessible, or if the lines are active there, until you go out and walk the lines yourself.
One of the first times we went out together, Easr and I rode our bikes to where three train lines all meet, just a little south of San Antonio. We drank 24s, waiting for the trains to pass. It turned out to be a great place to bench because the lines were really active. On return trips, we’ve caught these giant, whole cars from writers and crews like Heavy Metal Gang, MFK, Ichabod, Aware, and tons more. When we first started benching, there were two older men that would be at this spot every single time we showed up. No matter what, they always got there before us and took the best shady area.
I think there’s something elusive and alluring about freights and all that surrounds them.
It took about two years for these guys to even acknowledge us, but they finally saw we were just as obsessed and dedicated to trains as they were. As we got to know them, we found out they were avid rail fans, and had even worked for the railroad on the East Coast. Mike and Carl, (as we learned their names were) eventually let us chill with them in the shade. We’d pass the time listening to our radios, tuned to the railroad bands until something good passed. Then we would all rush to get our cameras out to shoot whatever was passing. We’d bring our dogs and hang together, sometimes meeting new rail fans who would teach us new terms or history. Although Mike and Carl are more into documenting technical aspects of the trains themselves, (different engines, power, and railroad history,) our shared enthusiasm created a bond between us.
I think there’s something elusive and alluring about freights and all that surrounds them. If you pay attention long enough, it starts to consume you – in a good way. There’s so much more to learn and obsess over whether you paint, document, or ride on them. I know Easr and I will both bench and paint until we die. I want to be that elderly person you see watching the lines, waiting for that train to pass. We all want to live forever, and some of us get to by writing on these objects that will possibly outlive us. In the words of a moniker Freight Bandit painted, “after you and I are long gone these trains will carry on.”
Erika Muth is a digital & film photographer, zine designer, and publisher. Easr is a graffiti writer, art hustler, and train enthusiast. Together they are ‘Parallel Rails’. The duo is based out of Texas, and creates work in the spirit of the railroad.
Check out the Parallel Rails site to learn more and pick up a copy of the zine!