Daniel, who has been a rail-rider for the past ten years, is quick to stress the harsh realities of contemporary freight-hopping, from the physical discomfort of sleeping in snow and occasionally in jail, to the threat of violence from psychotics like Robert Silveria and "jackrollers," predators who attack or kill others for their gear. Daniel warns that rail-riders must be wary of "streamliners"tramps traveling without gearas they are likely to be jackrollers. The act of freight-hopping itself has become more hazardous as well, due to faster trains which rarely stop and increased yard security augmented by infrared scopes and remote video. Despite the increasingly perilous nature of rail-riding, the culture still exists, although the classic hobo, or migrant worker by choice, has all but disappeared.In the old days, there was an unofficial pecking order in the freight-hopping communitythe working hobo on top, the tramp, who wanders but doesn't work, in the middle, and the bum, who is often alcoholic and remains in one place, on the bottom. Today, the hobo hierarchy mainly consists of its bottom two rungs: tramp and bum. The majority of contemporary rail-riders are "stamp tramps," or traveling, non-working stiffs who scam the food stamp system from state to state, often on a planned schedule. Daniel notes that since food stamps are going high-tech with personalized credit cards, or being abolished altogether, there may be a revival of the working hobo. "Maybe you'll see hoboes come back, because guys will decide they still want to live out there, and when they come into town and can't get stamps, they'll wash windows or pick up trash." The true latter-day inheritors of the hobo work ethic, however, are largely Latino migrant workers, illegal immigrants who ride the rails in search of work. Generally ostracized by prejudiced Anglo tramps, the Latinos have not significantly incorporated traditional hobo rituals into their lifestyles.
"All the graffiti art zines have pictures of freight now because the metro trains, they clean them off and the yards are too hot. Now you're not citywide, you're nationwide."
Although there is little cross-pollination between the contemporary tramp community and the Latino migrant workers, there has been an interesting crossover between urban aerosol graffiti and hobo writing. While inner city graffiti artists have long made train cars their canvas, they have generally confined themselves local metro trains and subways. With increased security at metro train lots and new surface materials which wipe clean with a wet rag, hip hop writers are now tagging freight trains. As Daniel observes, "All the graffiti art zines have pictures of freight now because the metro trains, they clean them off and the yards are too hot. Even if you get a great piece up and don't get killed by the cops, they're going to clean it off that day. Now you're not citywide, you're nationwide." Daniel cites well-known San Francisco aerosol artist Twist as a writer who has adopted the dimensions, styles, and themes of traditional hobo graffiti in his work on boxcars. As hip hop tagging is primarily concerned with delineating one's turf, the move to interstate freight trains is a curious one, yet Daniel maintains that this "out for fame" impulse is consistent with hobo writing:
Like hip hop graffiti, the writing of contemporary tramps is all about self-identification.
Like hip hop graffiti, the writing of contemporary tramps is all about self-identification. Caricatures and monikers dominate the boxcars, but Daniel also comes across sequential art with word balloons, poetry, and occupational folklore. On the insides of cars, he occasionally encounters more ambitious stabs at abstraction, "large abstract shapes that could be figures, could be sex acts, sometimes done with paints, totally abstracted and unfathomable as far as their intent. There are also some amazing figures, the range of presenting female form is just incredible. Some hands are so practiced and make such elegant lines, and others are so raw." As for Bozo Texino, he's still out there, a timeless icon that is seemingly shared by every generation of hoboes.
Daniel has been laboring for twelve years to make Who is Bozo Texino?, often biding his time between train hops by working with collage filmmaker Craig Baldwin (Sonic Outlaws, Tribulation 99), whose films he helped edit. After playing out the grant scene, he still needs $40,000 to complete his film, which he expects to run 75 minutes. Next, Daniel plans to shoot a film about traveling carnivals, and its dying subculture of painters and ride builders. When asked what motivates him to persist in his quixotic quest to bring Bozo Texino to a larger audience, Daniel replies that he
[O]utside the boundaries of commodity and wage life there's a flourishing human condition, with storytelling, social bonds, and friendship.
"wants to show what the message of graffiti is, that there's an art in life when it's free, that outside the boundaries of commodity and wage life there's a flourishing human condition, with storytelling, social bonds, and friendship." Daniel's message recalls the picaresque romanticism of those noble tramps of yesteryear, Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. That the charmed life on the skids these Hollywood hoboes depicted seems as irretrievable as the Wild West is not surprising. In an era when Congress ritually demonizes the underclass, the image of the happy-go-lucky tramp has never been more out of vogue. By documenting the remnants of a subculture for whom the slogan "Live free or die" is something other than license plate trim, Bill Daniel reminds us that there once was a time when homelessness wasn't a problem but a choice, and finding work was as easy as hopping the next westbound train. </end>
Movie clips excerpted from WHO IS BOZO TEXINO? produced and directed by Bill Daniel. For more information, write Bill Daniel, 107 South Jackson St., Waxahachie, TX75165.
Andrew Hultkrans is a writer living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in ArtForum, Mondo 2000, Wired, Filmmaker, and several books.