Not long after the birth of the railroad, a new kind of wanderer was born. Vagrants have been around for as long as other people have stayed in one place and called it "home," but the speed of the locomotive meant that a freight train hopper could shake the St. Louis dust off his feet one day and wind up on the West Coast within a week.

With this blessing came a new kind of difficulty: If you're walking from town to town, you have plenty of time to pick up gossip about the town you're approaching. But if you jump out of a boxcar at 5 a.m. in a state you've never seen, you likely have no idea what part of town is least hostile to your ilk, what neighborhoods are heavily policed, et cetera. Enter the useful art of hobo graffiti.

Through codes that developed over years and, one assumes, were explained around campfires, one hobo was able to leave a marker — generally not writing, but a graphic symbol — that would be understood only by another tramp: "Watch out for the railroad police here." "This barn is a good place to sleep." Michelle Shocked's record Kind Hearted Woman, which has a crude drawing of a kitten on its cover, took its name from such a marker.

This tradition, one hopes, will play at least a small part in Bill Daniels' The Girl on the Train in the Moon, a "hobo campfire/video installation" with a heavy documentary component. Daniels is concerned with the scrawlings that wind up on the side of freight cars, seeing that as one of the great undocumented art venues. He also investigates the way these practices have been appropriated in recent years by more "legitimate" artists. (A phenomenon that corresponds to the resurgence in popularity of train-hopping in general, as young middle-class folks try the hobo life on for size. It's a pretty edgy way to take a vacation - don't do it on a drunken whim, please.)

Daniels is taking a cue from his subjects when it comes to screening his latest film; he and cohort Vanessa Renwick are on a five-week, 22-show tour that takes them through towns like Albuquerque and Denver that were popular with the artists' hobo predecessors. Like tramps, they're taking their refuge where they find it: freight yards, art galleries, and warehouses across the country are playing host to the screenings. It's possible that the, ah, rustic charms of the Honey Factory will feel like five-star accommodations to the itinerant artists.

Renwick will be screening a documentary of her own, an apparently more straightforward program that focuses on the hitchhiking side of the hobo life, on folk art, and even rodeos. Renwick's interests seem pretty varied; she reports that she's currently making "a movie on wolves, a movie on columns ... a pixelvision movie on water towers ... and a movie on ladies who pee on toilet seats." Let's just hope this duo doesn't choose the same "show the movie in the environment it's about" strategy when that last project comes to fruition.

Lucky Bum Film Tour
Sunday, April 28
The Honey Factory
120 Guadalupe

More by John DeFore



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