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Beautiful City: The Hobo Code

America has had a fascination with hobos and hobo culture for nearly as long as these folks have been hitching rides on trains.

The myth of the hobo, like so many other myths, is far more romantic than the reality, but the idealization of the hobo as an essential American character is nonetheless solidly entrenched in much of our music, film and art.

It is, after all, a story of the Frontier, and the endless horizon-gazing that Americans, in particular, seem to relish more than any other people. Leaving the trappings of civilization behind and striking out on one’s own has an appeal to many of us, at least on certain days, and we’ve infused our mythical hobo with this kind of courage that seems difficult to muster.

Hobos themselves might feel a bit different about the matter. Life on the rails is difficult, and opportunity is catch as catch can. Some of the hardships of tramping can be gleaned from reading the “hobo code," which is a lexicon of runes written and used by hobos. For example, a three-sided square with no top line signals that you’ve reached a safe place to camp, while a circle with two parallel arrows warns to keep moving.

Along with this code, hobos developed a more contemplative vandalism, which has been adopted by some modern graffiti writers. These drawings are generally called “monikers,” or, simply, boxcar art. This isn’t the large, colorful graffiti that you see on train cars while stopped at a railroad crossing—it’s rather more like quiet postcards from the rails.

If you’re looking for them, you’ll find you have to walk right up to a car in order to see most of them. Written in grease pen or chalk, they are surprisingly unobtrusive: gestural line drawings depicting profiles, boxcars or sailboats and the date or a pithy phrase attached. They might remind the more gallery-oriented viewer of Picasso’s line drawings.

There is also a surprising tenderness to many of these monikers. The lines are softer than in modern graffiti, the lettering less stylized and the imagery is often wistful—whether it’s the profile of a cowboy looking into the distance, or a man sleeping against a palm tree.

We all need a space to breathe, to think. These monikers suggest that in the time it took to write them, these artists may have found that space.

John Hodgman reads 700 hobo names: