Dallas resident Daniel was working as a commercial photographer in a warehouse across from the Santa Fe train yard in 1983 when some curious chalk etchings on the sides of boxcars caught his eye. Already interested in conventional aerosol graffiti, Daniel became fascinated by the caricatures drawn by hoboes identifying themselves as "The Rambler," "Coaltrain," "Kid Idaho," and "Colossus of Roads." "This is incredible," he thought, "It's like a secret hobo society." As he started photographing the sketches, Daniel came upon on tag which compelled him to delve deeper into the culture of hobo writing, a cartoon cowboy sporting a large hat with an infinity-shaped brim and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. This was the mark of "Bozo Texino," a mythical symbol that, like the Trystero post horn in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, suddenly appeared to be everywhere Daniel looked. Beyond its ubiquity, the Bozo Texino tag seemed to promise a wealth of hidden history behind its blank stare, and like the Trystero horn, it did. As Daniel has discovered in his serpentine rail journeys across the country in search of its author, Bozo Texino is both every hobo, and no hobo in particular. Like the "author" of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), referred to by Biblical scholars as the "J" writer, Bozo Texino is an amalgam of anonymous writers who have created a collective identity that unites the disparate elements of hobo culture.
The true latter-day inheritors of the hobo work ethic, however, are largely Latino migrant workers, illegal immigrants who ride the rails in search of work.
According to Daniel, the term "hobo" derives from "hoe-boy," or migrant worker, and possibly "homeward bound," referring to uprooted Civil War veterans making their way home by rail. Contrary to popular belief, Daniel maintains that the heyday of the hobo was the post-Civil War era, not the Steinbeck 1930's with its traveling Tom Joads. "The whole transient, jobless scene started after the Civil War," says Daniel, "They were men who couldn't reassimilate into society." Coincidentally, the western expansion was peaking at the time, so many of these rootless drifters hopped freight west in hopes of finding work building bridges or "gandy-dancing" (laying train tracks). In the 1890's, according to Daniel, these "kings of the road" could always find work, and happily chose to travel from job to job, never settling down. This spirit of wanderlust characterized the Golden Age of hobo culture. The migrant workers of the Depression, notes Daniel, did not choose their lifestyle, but rather hopped freight by economic necessity, and were not serious contributors to hobo lore. The classic hobo lived by the "laws of the Wanderpath," which, according to Daniel, go like this: "You help somebody who needs some help. If somebody doesn't have any food or water you share with them, and somebody will share with you. When you leave a campsite, you don't leave it trashed out, you leave some wood for the next guy. You never ask too many questions about what someone's doing, you mind your own business. It's called being a 'good Johnson,' a Johnson being a gentleman of the underworld, a criminal who still has a creed of ethics." It was from such a community of honorable rogues that train writing, or hobo graffiti was born.
Beyond human caricatures and moniker tags, one could find political satire and propaganda, poetry, doggerel, religious appeals, lewd renderings of the female form, sequential narrative art, and most significantly, an iconic code of symbols.
In the heyday of hobo graffiti, boxcar observers were treated to a diverse palette of visual form and expression. Beyond human caricatures and moniker tags, one could find political satire and propaganda, poetry, doggerel, religious appeals, lewd renderings of the female form, sequential narrative art, and most significantly, an iconic code of symbols directed at fellow hoboes. These icons served as a secret communications network for the freight-hopping population, informing hoboes of conditions they might expect in a particular place, from "You can sleep in hayloft" to "Hit the road, quick!" Hobo writing was documented as early as the 1930's, as this excerpt from the July, 1939 Railroad Magazine proves:
"[T]heir drawings share common themes: frontier identity, freedom, and fantasy."
This article reveals an important aspect of train writingthat it was practiced by railroad employees as often as by hoboes themselvesand even identifies Bozo Texino as one J.H. McKinley, a Missouri Pacific engineer who adopted the moniker as his own, adding the cowboy caricature. As Daniel notes, "The development of boxcar art has been enriched by the two-way influence between tramps and trainmen. Although they are from two different classes, their drawings share common themes: frontier identity, freedom, and fantasy." Whereas in McKinley's day hobo graffiti functioned as code as well as cartoon, today the informational aspect has all but vanished. The site-specific icons are "a totally dead language," according to Daniel, who characterizes today's train writing as "purely tagging, it's about identity." The loss of the visual code points to the fragmented state of today's hobo community. "Like the rest of society, it's so fractured," observes Daniel, "There's no cohesion, people don't really take care of each other, there just isn't the kind of brotherhood there once was, or so the histories would have us believe." Nevertheless, hobo culture persists into the present day, in a fashion somewhat removed from the romanticized images once created by Jacks London and Kerouac.