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Filmmaker follows hobo scribblings

It’s a simple cartoon face, scrawled in what appears to be white chalk. Imagine an iconic 1970s smiley face — except that instead of a smile there’s a scowl, and instead of a bald head there’s a big wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Beneath the odd image are the mysterious words “Bozo Texino.”

Now imagine this same cartoon face repeated over and over again, thousands of times, on the sides of rusty boxcars. And imagine other simple images — naked ladies, drunks, cocktail glasses, a sleeping figure beneath a palm tree — each repeated like the cowboy face, each carried across America on the backs of huffing trains.

You may have seen these images, seen them a thousand times, but never picked them out from the sea of sometimes vulgar spray-painted graffiti on rail cars. And not only that, but your parents and grandparents may have seen them too. Maybe even your great-grandparents.

Welcome to the world of railroad art, a 100-year-old tradition extensively chronicled for perhaps the first time by filmmaker-folklorist Bill Daniel. The Dallas native and Guggenheim Fellow appears tonight at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to screen his film Who is Bozo Texino? and to talk about his new book.

“I figured I discovered some kind of secret hobo art movement,” said Daniel, recalling the first time he noticed a Bozo Texino image in 1984. The graffiti “was not your usual junk,” he said.

“It was stuff that looked to be a full-on underground art scene, a boxcar graffiti cult with hundreds of characters. ... At first I thought it was hobo art, but it turned out they were done by both railroad workers and hobos.”

Daniel, now of Braddock, Pa., spent 16 years chronicling the Bozo Texino image and others like it. He interviewed tramps, tracked down old railroad men and shared his portions at hobo camps. Daniel discovered not only a subterranean art scene, but also an entire subculture — one with its own customs, its own history and its own language.

The long odyssey began in a Dallas rail yard by Fair Park, where Daniel spied his first Bozo Texino image rumbling by on one of the trains. He said it wasn’t long before he noticed another and then another.

Soon, Daniel realized that Bozo Texinos appeared not only in Dallas, but also in Fort Worth and in Houston.

Eventually he began hopping trains himself. His very nontraditional, nonlinear black-and-white documentary brings viewers along for the ride, literally and metaphorically, as he explores the “occupational folklore of tagging” — that is, the long and secret tradition of drawing graffiti on boxcars.

One of the artists interviewed by Daniel sees the railroads as a makeshift distribution network, a sort of analog mass media created to spread the artist’s message. Think of “Kilroy Was Here” painted on a mobile canvas.

“This is such an essentially beautiful idea,” Daniel said.

The tags he describes are not the sometimes obscene aerosol variety most despised by the railroad companies. Rather, they’re smaller — typically less than a foot or so square — and often drawn by the railroad workers themselves.

Daniel’s research reveals that the first Bozo Texino image appeared as early as the 1920s, and that the first artist was probably a Missouri Pacific railroad man from El Paso named J. H. McKinley.

After McKinley died in 1967, others began to emulate him. Variations have included Bozo Mexino, Bozo Bambino and Bozo Texina.