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Freight-train graffiti

Freight cars and other railroad cars make another popular target for writers. The origins of train writing probably date back to the hobos of the early 20th century. Generally hobos while freighthopping would write their name or initials on the inside (or less frequently, the outside) of a boxcar to show they had been there, occasionally they would write other hobo symbols in chalk or grease pencil to indicate the train's destination and other routes.

Hobos also used water towers in train yards to let other hobos know who had passed through and who had gone where, as depicted in the film Emperor of the North Pole; this system could serve to locate individual hobos by reading the graffiti they had left on the water tower. Railroad workers also wrote graffiti on the outsides of train cars in chalk or grease pencil. One of the most famous railroad-worker tags appeared on train cars throughout the 1970s and 1980s: "Herby," a drawing of a man wearing a sombrero and sleeping under a palm tree.

Although hobos probably originated chalk and grease-pencil train-graffiti, the origins of the use of spray paint on trains remains unknown. Freight train graffiti often (but not exclusively) occurs in a rural setting, perhaps because of the relative unavailability of other objects to paint, although it also happens commonly in Southern California, which has few subways. Freight and subway "writers" share the urge to make their name widely known, as trains run their long and often circuitous routes other artists see and occasionally write over the graffiti already there, creating the occasional nation-wide challenges. Freight graffiti can appear wherever cargo rail travels, however it seems more common in the United States, Central Europe, and South America.

Railroad companies in modern times, in the United States at least, dislike taking a locomotive or car out of service merely to remove graffiti, so they will generally wait until the next scheduled repaint to do so. This means that tags and art on trains may last for quite some time. Graffiti artists have learned to modify their behavior to discourage the railroad from quick repainting. Railroad cars must show certain markings to meet laws or railroad regulations. If these become covered over, the railroad must re-mark them, requiring a total or partial repaint. Such markings include car or locomotive numbers, data stickers, warning labels, etc. Graffiti artists now commonly leave such areas of the car or locomotive alone, meaning that their work may remain for longer.

Railfans split into different camps in their opinion of graffiti on cars and locomotives. Some loath it, and will not photograph tagged units or have graffiti on their model railroads. Others find it an interesting phenomenon that makes for more variation in a railroad world of increasing corporate blandness.

Graffiti on freights counts as a federal offense in some jurisdictions.

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