Painted Trains: Art Off the Tracks? Part One

Graffiti hearkens back to ancient public art. Is there something valuable in street art that is good for the community?

Graffiti near Moganshan Road in Shanghai image © Jakub Hałun with CCLicense
Graffiti near Moganshan Road in Shanghai
image © Jakub Hałun with CCLicense

There is an innate conflict between street art and property. Street artists have to paint or paste on to something, which alters the appearance and sometimes even the function of that thing. Many municipalities provide “free walls” and approved surfaces, which are a lovely idea. For some, however, the rebellious act of putting their mark on something they don’t own and don’t have permission to mark on is part of the art itself, especially when they feel uncomfortable with their own government. Graffiti can give voice to people living in oppressive regimes who feel that their lives are colorless, to people breaking out of poverty, or to spoiled children who want a way of gaining recognition. Like all art, it reflects the intent of the one who uses it while remaining subject to the interpretation of those who encounter it.

The Rude Man of Cerne image © Pete Harlow with CCLicense
The Rude Man of Cerne
image © Pete Harlow with CCLicense

In the past, artists have made their mark on the earth. You might think of the lines on the Nazca Plains, the Rude Man of Cerne, the Holy Ghost Panel in Horseshoe Canyon, or countless other pieces of art. In the modern world the rise of property, which some have and some do not, has contributed to restrictions on public art, a very important means of community building. The visionary talents of the street artist can be a means of giving voice to the marginalized, but modern governments have spent decades deleting those margins.

British street artist Daniel Cusack, 21 years old, was sentenced to 16 months in prison this week for the graffiti he left on nineteen subway trains, two trackside walls and one house. Police allege that it cost over £97,000 to remove his artwork. Over the past five years, Cusack, known by his tag, Kwote, has been busy painting and honing his signature style. Can it be that the powers that be are so unimaginative as to jail him for it without tapping into his talent? Is there nothing he could improve with a coat of paint and his creativity? Perhaps authorities are afraid that Kwote might have a message that we need to hear.

It is difficult to know the substance of Kwote’s art, since it has been expunged and suppressed on the internet. Not everyone values graffiti, especially when it takes the form of tagging, a stylized representation of an artist’s signature that has unfortunate connotations with gang activity. British newspapers have referred to Kwote’s actions as “graffiti attacks” despite the lack of physical violence in the case. Police have reported that it inconvenienced many people when the “damaged” trains were removed from service to “fix” them. Doubtless the absence of trains did inconvenience people. But damaged? Wasn’t the offense really something else? The language used seems unnecessarily inflammatory.

Holborn Station image © Sunil060902
Holborn Station
image © Sunil060902 with CCLicense

Kwote was prosecuted largely for the artwork he left on trains, which are state property used by the public every day. Trains are an excellent choice for street artists who want to get their message, or their ego, out for public consumption. They go from point to point, a mobile advertisement, even better than a billboard or stationary wall. Train graffiti also causes havoc in a system which is bent on keeping things clean and sterile, or at least clear for paid advertising. Advertisers are allowed to place their materials in the subway or on trains for a fee. Many advertisements are less artistic and debatably more offensive than street art. If street artists had access to more money would they be allowed to buy space as well?

Here are three painted subway trains from London. These images are by duncan and appear in accordance with Fair Use Policy, so that you can see what train tagging in the UK often looks like.

Jamie RIP

This weekend I will post a photoblog devoted to painted trains. This is a phenomenon that occurs across the globe, revealing an interesting relationship between creativity and state property. Some places have created competitions and collaborations that legitimize street artists who paint trains. These events also establish control over them by requiring fees and setting standards as to what is appropriate.

The conflict is far from simple and the creative spirit is a powerful force.

5 thoughts on “Painted Trains: Art Off the Tracks? Part One

  1. michaelpiggott Reply

    I like street art… On walls and buildings I think it’s fairly ok. Trains I get the artist bring punished. What they should do is commission the artist to style the outside of trains. Yet you can’t imagine this on the tube. Only company brave enough would be Virgin trains but their branding is too strong for this to happen.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Thanks for commenting. I think paying artists to style trains is a great idea, although it brings in the double edged sword of commercialism. In the second part of this series I show some art done on the Thalys in Paris. They did it as a marketing stunt. Really audacious. The art that the artists put on those trains was way above average, creme de la creme. The artists even covered the windows so they wouldn’t paint over them and block the view of people in the train. It was classy. Train manufacturers aren’t brave enough and some artists no doubt prefer to be vagabonds so they can do and say what they want where they want.

      Would love to see some color on the tube!

      • katmcdaniel

        Oh, that isn’t so bad… there’s a rush that comes from finding something that isn’t in your face, so to speak. Don’t you think? I got so excited when a body shop in our neighborhood in Houston put up a piece on their fence. They were out in broad daylight with their spray cans, which I thought was bold in a pretty conservative suburban area.

      • michaelpiggott

        I used to work on the edge of East London in the UK. Near loads of street art. I miss being able to wander at lunch and see the latest stuff

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