Continental canvas for graffiti art

June 18, 1999

Graffiti artists have moved to movable canvases and are using long distance freight trains like a steel internet to broadcast their spray-painted messages, a Canadian sociologist says.

In a speech to the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities recently, Louise Gauthier, an urban cultural sociologist on the staff of Concordia University in Montreal, said big-city crackdowns on graffiti writers have spawned a new breed of street artists who are putting their work on display for a continent-wide audience.

Ms Gauthier went to New York in 1990 to study the avant-garde art of the early 20th century. Struck by the graffiti around her, she immediately changed her field. She is one of only a few academics making a serious study of the social, political and aesthetic implications of contemporary forms of graffiti.

Once the domain of disaffected ethnic minority youth of large US cities in the late 1960s, graffiti has climbed out of the subway tunnels and now regularly travels inter-city. Fed up with harassment from police and transit officials, the illegal artists have brought their spray paint cans to the quieter studio of the rail yards.

In her presentation, "Graffiti on freight trains as networks of communication", Ms Gauthier provided some visual examples of messages on box cars and how they can become the equivalent of travelling bulletin boards.

One slide pictured a train decorated with the name of Herby, an infamous hobo, and a date. Next to it, another graffiti writer had scribbled "Where's Herby?" The response was not long in coming. Herby, who identifies himself by a simple line drawing of a palm tree, with a siesta-taker snoozing against the trunk, added a new message to let everyone know that he was alive and kicking.

Graffiti's artistic value has been recognised by the mainstream art community, and some curators offer graffiti writers gallery space. But, for many, uncommissioned outdoor work is still preferred, Ms Gauthier said. The artists' names travel through suburbs and farms, flashing their colours.

Many of these self-taught artists feel that without the illegal activity, they would never have found their calling. As a result, many of those who have found legitimacy feel pressured to continue to do public jobs on the sly. "They tell me they have to have a complete portfolio," she joked.

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