Rodger Randle: Railroad Graffiti Art
Art, On the Move
Train Graffiti
The visual desecration of the railroad has become so commonplace we don't even notice it anymore.
The railroad was once one of the most honored institutions in America. Today it is has been abandoned to the derisive attention of the graffiti artists. Sic transit gloria.

Boxcars pass through Tulsa that have been graffiti painted in distant corners of the nation. All of the art is vandalism, but much of it has poetic merit when individual works are examined. There is a contradiction: a long train of graffiti covered cars is depressing in its ugliness and in its proof of declining American standards, but individual graffiti can be seen as works of art.
One of the continuing surprises with graffiti is how the colors of the works blend harmoniously with their canvases. To what extent is this intentional? To what extend it it the natural consequence of painting on backgrounds that are flexibly neutral? This is an excellent example. The colors could not have been more carefully selected to go with each other; even the orange of the railcar markings pair well with the pastel green of the graffiti.
Who doesn't love a snowman? This cheerful work includes the number "2" painted (though now faded) in a candy cane pattern. There is a happy message here, but somehow it has been lost.
This seems to be nothing more than the initials of the artist's name, but the work is so stylized that it is difficult to be sure.
"Hiter" is the artist's name? Did he mean to paint "hitter"?
Here is an example of imaginative use of color and design. It says something, I believe. What?
Here we have vandalism devoid of any real attempt at art. This is one end of the graffiti spectrum.
Bright colors on a black background.
We can best describe this work as "large".
The color of the graffiti paint matches the yellow of the railcar markings and combines well with the rust of the rails below. Elegant in its simplicity.
Ready to take the show on the road...
The train engineer stands on the engine's front platform, perhaps having a last smoke before heading overland. As the train travels it will haul a long collection of railcars boldly decorated in graffiti.
Observations About Train Art...

West Tulsa is the busiest active center of art curation in our city. Exhibits are broken apart and new ones are put together 24 hours per day. This is all done, from an art perspective, in a random way. New traveling collections are based on the destinations of the boxcars that carry the art, not on the appropriateness of the art combinations.

The composer John Cage created in music compositions that sometimes worked the same way and he was considered genius, but the traveling exhibits of the Burlington Northern Railway are just considered “trains".

While the exhibits are assembled in West Tulsa at the Burlington Northern yards, and it is possible to go there to view them, the exhibits all pass through the Arts District downtown on the tracks by the old Union Depot.

The Arts District is the ideal place to view the art in the opinion of many. The backdrop of the downtown skyscrapers adds a certain drama to the experience. The schedules for the passing of the exhibits are not published, however, and patience is required. It is a good idea to take a folding chair when you go so that you can rest comfortably between passing exhibitions. Friends who are aficionados of this kind of art say that it is best enjoyed after first passing a leisurely afternoon in one of the nearby cocktail lounges.

Others prefer viewing the exhibits in situ in the ambience of the industrial grittiness of the West Tulsa train yards.

Wherever you view the art, what you will encounter is more often marked by exuberance than by creative achievement. Graffiti is an art form that has flourished in America in terms of quantity more than in terms of artistic merit. This is especially evident in the oeuvres of the artists that use box cars as their canvases.

Many art patrons, however, prefer the spontaneity of the boxcar artists over the restrained (constrained) public wall art scattered around Tulsa. Most of these works appear to have been designed by corporate committees. (An exception to this is the wonderful painting of flags by Jim Corlett on the side of the old Triangle Blueprint Building downtown across from the Performing Arts Center, but this was done nearly 50 years ago.)

Rodger Randle
The photos on this page are © Rodger Randle .

OU Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture

Prof. Rodger A. Randle, Director
The University of Oklahoma Tulsa
4502 East 41st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74135