What’s in a name?
By Tom Wachunas
“If you think of aerosol graffiti as a shout, a moniker is the raise of a hand or a whisper.” – Scot Phillips
“Railroad iron is a magician's rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” - Henry David Thoreau
“The mystery. The meditation. The trains themselves. The desire to become an anonymous and tiny legend.” - 2359 (a moniker)
EXHIBIT: Moniker: Identity Lost & Found - an unprecedented documentation of mark-making and monikers—grassroots movements which began in rail yards in the late 19th century and continue today / Curatorial team: Andy Dreamingwolf, exhibition guest curator; Kurt Tors, artist liaison; and Massillon Museum Operations Officer Scot Phillips, project director
On view through October 21, 2018, at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio / Phone: 330-833-4061 / Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm
First this, from the Massillon Museum web page: “During the late 1800s, blue-collar workers and travelers began drawing unique symbols and words on the sides of train cars in chalk, ephemeral marks that crossed the countryside, exposed to anyone who idly watched passing trains. Over time, mark-making developed into a coded system of communication. Through repetition, recognition, and transcontinental exposure, symbols took on a deeper meaning. A drawing became a moniker: a name, an identity.”
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This thrilling exhibit is a meticulously assembled compendium of photographs, texts, and artifacts tracing a legacy both historic and artistic. You could call it the preservation of an overground subculture as well as the celebration of a continuum: Railroad life.
It is a culture within a culture – vital, to be sure, yet often seemingly marginal and mysterious to the larger societies it serves. Within it there are itinerant individuals who literally draw attention to their presence by making pictures and/or words visible to anyone looking at a train, moving or not. Sure, we can think of their marks as graffiti. But these aren’t the explosively polychromed, spray-painted configurations of wild, fly-by-night urban taggers. You won’t find such brash, billboard theatricality here.
These denizens of the railway world message each other, and for that matter anyone else who might happen upon their turf, with a much less spectacular form of declaration. Their images and words exude a primal air of runic mystique, stripped down and raw, conjuring something at once intensely private, vulnerable, and accessible. There’s an elemental poignancy, indeed gravitas to these sketchy drawings, these terse, coded utterings of a name, of a temporal, ultimately impermanent existence.
Maybe that’s what prompted the most visually stunning component of this exhibit: A large gathering of uncoated steel panels, each 19” x 19”, and destined to become part of the Massillon Museum’s permanent collection. Ten of these are “Tributes” – remembrances by contemporary artists who have drawn on the panels with Markal paint stick to recreate or re-interpret the work of still active (including some who have worked in this genre since the 1960s) and past moniker practitioners.
An additional 27 panels are evenly spaced across three horizontal rows in an intriguing poem for the eyes. Think of it as a mesmerizing metaphor for trains lined up in a rail yard. The whole sensation of seeing it might suggest strolling on to the raised mound of a track bed to get a closer look at a boxcar in all its imposing scale.
Enhancing the experience of looking are the recorded sounds, emanating from a speaker mounted at the ceiling, of feet walking and scraping on stone ballast. When those footfalls periodically cease, we hear the sounds of chalk or paint sticks tapping and scratching on metal surfaces. This hypnotic soundtrack of mark-making is a constant sensory companion to the authentic railroad film footage (a 47-minute loop) projected on to a nearby wall wherein we see many close-ups of individuals, their hands drawing, their monikers taking form.
Here then is a fascinating exploration of a socio- aesthetic phenomenon, a form of folk art wherein the ephemerality of codified identities has become arrested in time to become a tangible reality. Anonymity gets a name. Think of secret moments and thoughts revealed, of privacy gone public, but only for as long as it takes for, say, a side-door Pullman to clatter by on the tracks (Quick, look! Is someone living in that boxcar?!) and then disappear into the distance,…provided you were really there to see it in the first place.
In lieu of that uniquely fleeting, actual experience, you can still catch the next train, as it were, simply by visiting this bountiful exhibit.
PHOTOS, from top: 1. by Bozo Texino / 2. by Qualm / 3. By Matokie and Twist / 4. Ten Living Tributes / 5. 27 steel plates by living artists spanning 50 years of the moniker tradition / 6. by Swampy / 7. by 2359