Who is Bozo Texino?
Bill Daniel is glad you asked. In fact, that simple question sent him on a 16-year cinematic quest that revealed an American art form that has been rolling across the country for more than a century: railroad monikers.
Daniels, a Texas-based photographer, filmmaker and artist who is currently holed up in San Francisco, said the origins of his film, “Who is Bozo Texino?,” go back to 1983 when he was out filming the “industrial splendor” of his Dallas neighborhood and started noticing the rail cars moving on the Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
He found himself intrigued by crudely sketched chalk monikers on the boxcars. Herby. Collosus of Roads. The Rambler. D Kid. The questions whirled around in Daniels’ head: Who did these figures represent? Who was drawing them? And then he spotted his first Bozo Texino, a blank-staring character with a broad hat in the shape of the infinity symbol.
“I thought ‘what the hell is this?’ It was like hypnosis,” Daniels said of the austere figure. “He’s neutral. He’s even. He’s ungripped by aversion or craving.” In short, Bozo was a character that Daniels had to learn more about.
His journey, chronicled in the black-and-white, 16-millimeter film, offers a glimpse into the underground world of hobo and railroad worker graffiti, an almost-extinct subculture, and suggests that the moniker drawing tradition is now being kept alive by a new generation of train artists.
Daniel screened the film Monday (Oct. 15) in the alley behind Sherven Square, 1348 Market St. The free event was presented by This Place Matters—Redding Shasta County Arts Council and Viva Downtown.
According to a statement prepared by Daniel, his travel-adventure film was photographed “at considerable risk from speeding freight trains and in secret hobo jungles in the dogged pursuit of the impossibly convoluted story of the heretofore untold history of the century-old folkloric practice of hobo and railworker graffiti.”
Daniel adds that “the absurd quest for the true identity of railroading’s greatest artist will likely amuse and confound you in its sincere attempt to understand and preserve this artform.”
“Who is Bozo Texino?” includes interviews some of the last remaining old-timers who have kept the folk art of monikers alive. Since its completion in 2005, and after Daniel toured it around the country “in DIY, punk-rock style, the film has become a bit of a cult favorite among graffiti fans, freight hoppers and folklorists.
“The film is disconnected in time. You can’t tell where or when you are in the film. That was kind of the idea in making it. It’s in black and white with no specific references to time and places. You’re hurtling through the space of railroad storytelling,” Daniel said.
Daniel writes that monikers are simple chalk line signatures of a nickname usually accompanied by a single icon, caricature, or symbol emblematic of the writer. The first were carved into the wooden sides of water tanks and freight cars, but later, as steel cars became more common, monikers were written using chalk and oil sticks.
Rail workers, especially brakemen, switch men, and car men all spent their work day on and around the rolling stock, and as part of their duties they carried chalk, grease pencils, and later, oil-based paint sticks to note destinations and mechanical conditions on certain cars. It was a natural thing for workers to also draw cartoons and sketches while they were out in the yards.
“Meanwhile, tramps and hobos were also marking train cars with their own messages and monikers. The lore has it that hobos developed a graphic language of symbols used to indicate the safety of various routes, or signal a good spot to beg for a meal, or find nearby hobo camps known as “jungles.” But together, rail employees and their work-averse brethren, the hobos, developed this traditional art form,” the artist writes.
During his travels, Daniel encountered Road Hog USA, a veteran hobo who settled in Dunsmuir for a spell during the late 1980s. Having tired of riding the rails, Road Hog signed on as caretaker of the Dunsmuir Cemetery in exchange for lodging in the caretaker’s shack. At the annual hobo convention in Britt, Iowa, in 1992, Road Hog was elected King of the Hobos and enjoyed his one-year reign.