Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Grafitti art work on a roll?

As I sat and waited out a train crossing the other day, humming a Bob Marley tune with the window letting a little spring in, I noticed that at least every other train car flashing by had some grafitti art attached.

It was a long train, and I counted over 100 painted images. One had a unique suggestion for new uses for a viewer's body parts, but the rest seemed surprisingly clean and benign - in scripty San Andreas-style letters, one had nearly covered a car with silver words shadowed neatly in black: "A WAY OUT."

I wonder what kind of artist must sneak into the rail yards at night, spraying up a fortune in paint to decorate such a plain canvas - and one that odds are they will never themselves encounter again.

Oh, I get painting - the kind where you commit emotion to canvas, and if it's good enough, it will last a lifetime or longer in somebody's living room or even a museum.

But a train car? It's going to get covered with soot in days, scrapped or painted over the next year, or just plain fade away somewhere out on the lonely prairie next to the highway going to Omaha.

And if you get caught, it isn't a blue ribbon waiting for you, homie.

Who would bother?

An inner city kid perhaps, grown tired of the concrete block walls? Or a frustrated rural town wannabe?

Maybe for someone who feels they will never escape, painting on a train that may freely and unpredictably crisscross the continent for years may be the next best thing to freedom yourownself.

Some of this art is simple - a name crying "look at me," some street term or a cartoonish figure on a skateboard. Somebody's quick burst of expressiveness, probably long since forgotten even by its artist.

Some is pretty elaborate - consuming whole cars with multiple layers of color and evidencing some artistic talent and a real desire to communicate.

Personally, I often didn't understand what the art was trying to tell me as it rattled on past bound for who knows where, but it did make a long, slow train more entertaining to endure on a Bob Marley spring day.

Of those few that indicated place, New York, Chicago and Montreal seemed to be represented. Few galleries around here are that diverse.

Of course, I'm sure the railroads don't take a very romantic view of this modern form of artistic expression. They probably think those bright colored characters and that fat, funky street font that seems virtually universal are truly defacing their lovely rusting, lumpy, slate gray train cars. They'd probably like to put the artists in jail as vandals, and that they are.

Storm Lake Police have long declared war on such artists, and with good reason. "Art" on buildings isn't cool without the owner's knowledge, especially when it's mouth-breather gang garbage.

There's plenty to be seen at Casino Beach Marina and other locations that go unwatched long enough, and I'm no more impressed than the cops are. To be honest, I prefer it on the railroad's dime, and with a bit more creativity.

At one time, aspiring, edgy young artists were supposed to run off to Paris. Or were they supposed to cut an ear off - I forget.

Today, I guess they paint on what they've got, which is train cars left overnight on the siding.

To these artistic Robin Hood hoods, wherever they may be, I hope you get something from sharing your art on these moving galleries, even if it isn't often appreciated.

When we save the Storm Lake depot, perhaps we can have a corner reserved for some of their art work, which is as much a part of railroading today as were those pieces of tin we use to put on the track back in the day, which turned into a whistle after being flattened.

(Also illegal and not to be tried at home, by the way.)

But if Storm Lake really wants to stop grafitti art, it should just invite the city's street artists to have at a big wall, perhaps turning the ugly blank backside of the Latino night club downtown into a colorful mural dedicated to the city's diversity.

And if the railroad companies really want to stop art on their cars forever, just give the spray-can-wielding youth of America an old train here of there to paint their hearts out on, no questions asked.

Because, based on what I can remember of the free-spirit of youth, as soon as we make it all legal and approved and invited by society, it will surely take all the fun out of it...