Photographer and filmmaker Bill Daniel assembles exhibition exploring America’s railroad culture

click to enlarge While working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, brakeman Russell Butler tagged thousands of rail cars with his “Colossus of Roads” moniker. - Bill Daniel
Bill Daniel
While working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, brakeman Russell Butler tagged thousands of rail cars with his “Colossus of Roads” moniker.
While reading the article, we recommend checking out this railroad mix, featuring classic train and hobo songs, clips from rail graffiti artists, audio from Who is Bozo Texino?, and music mentioned in the piece:

The railroad is a mainline into the heart of the American myth.

“In America, trains are foundational to pretty much everything,” said Bill Daniel, the renowned New Braunfels-based photographer and filmmaker whose train hobo documentary Who Is Bozo Texino? earned him a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship.

In keeping with that notion, Daniel curated the group show “Rail Practitioners,” which opens Friday, October 1 at the Blue Star Arts Complex’s FL!GHT Gallery.

“‘Rail Practitioners’ is an art show, but it’s also based in archive practice,” said Daniel, whose interest in railroad art emerged during the early ’80s while jumping rides on freight cars. “And that type of hybrid show is the sweet spot for me. From rail workers to rail riders — modern day train punks — to archivists documenting their work and lifestyle, it’s documentary work and artwork.”

Beyond Daniel’s involvement, the main draw of “Rail Practitioners” is the art of Russell Butler, who’s showing under his birth name for the first time. Under the railroad moniker “Colossus of Roads” and mail-art moniker “buZ blurr,” Butler emerged as an important figure in 20th century outsider art.

The new exhibit explores the many aspects of Butler’s output, while also stirring in work from other artists intrigued by the hobo lifestyle of hopping freight trains.

Daniel’s own circuitous path to trains began with punk. Many of his resonant images of that late-’70s and early ’80s cultural explosion were published in the 128-page photobook Tri-X Noise.

After touring with iconic Austin punk band the Big Boys, Daniel gained a taste for itinerant life, while a stint as projectionist for legendary Texas noise rockers the Butthole Surfers further opened his eyes to the possibility of film. Those twin loves found fusion in trains and the graffiti art adorning their sides.

“It wasn’t your usual junk like sloppy bomber tags or band logos,” wrote Daniel in a 1992 issue of the San Francisco zine Cometbus. “But stuff that looked to be a full-on underground art scene with hundreds of characters. ... I figured I had discovered some kind of secret hobo art movement. And so, I decided to become a hobo myself and meet these brilliant writers and adopt their carefree lifestyle.”

By 1984, Daniel moved beyond photography into filmmaking, inspired by the experimental films he’d seen at Austin punk shows. Daniel rode the rails to San Francisco and, on his first day there, met famed experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin.

The pair began a long-term collaboration, and Baldwin’s Artist Television Access storefront provided Daniel a home base to create his masterwork, Bozo Texino, a 16 mm film shot over more than 15 years of him hopping freight trains. The experimental work documents train graffiti art — its makers and culture, including the elusive titular Bozo Texino.

Hypnotic, visceral and thought-provoking, Bozo Texino has been screened at film festivals worldwide and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But, given the film’s non-traditional approach, it wasn’t necessarily easy to build an audience. For that, Daniel returned to his punk roots.

“Black Flag came to [Austin club] Raul’s in 1980 and they had a van, and I thought, ‘A-ha! That’s how you do it,” Daniel said with a laugh. “You travel around, you build a network. That’s how you do it. So, I toured with the film for 10 years, and that built a network for me. And that’s how I know the people in this show.”

click to enlarge Russell Butler's "Colossus of Roads" image features a simple line-drawing profile of a trainman wearing a cowboy hat. - Bill Daniel
Bill Daniel
Russell Butler's "Colossus of Roads" image features a simple line-drawing profile of a trainman wearing a cowboy hat.
Meet Russell Butler

Butler, the headlining artist of “Rail Practitioners,” came from three-generation Arkansas railroad family. While working as a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific Railroad for four decades — he retired in the ’90s — Butler developed the “Colossus of Roads” moniker, which he tagged on “thousands and thousands” of freight cars, according to Daniel.

Rail monikers are pieces of graffiti on the sides on trains, and many of their artists produce a unique design or character that they repeat over and over. The use of monikers, now commonplace in graffiti art, originated on railroads.

“It’s that escape impulse,” Daniel said. “Leave one town, go to the next. Leave it behind, get a new identity. The use of train-art monikers speaks to that as well. You can’t use your real name! Most of these artists were rail workers and if they used their real name, they’d get fired. This is Russell’s first show using his real name.”

Butler’s iconic “Colossus of Roads” image was a simple line-drawing profile of a trainman wearing a cowboy hat. Each of his drawings featured an original caption.

“I must admit my dispatch of icons into the network has been my main sledge/major opus,” said Butler in a 2019 interview with punk icon and fellow Arkansan Tav Falco. “Cryptic language appended to a wandering icon for those not willing to apply their own interpretation of its meaning, as it is only a device to add variation to a redundant drawing.”

Prior to cultivating the moniker, Butler was an active participant in the 1970s’ burgeoning mail-art movement, then using his “buZ blurr” handle. Mail artists used the postal system to exchange work directly, bypassing agents, galleries and critics.

“It was founded as part of a radical, late-’60s, ’70s interventionist, anti-establishment world,” Daniel said of mail art. “It’s very easy for the art world to turn up its nose at mail art, but it really is radical because it achieved its aim: it circumvented the art-world gatekeepers.”

Butler’s creative inspiration touched the world of music as well. His neighbor in Arkansas was none other than Gary Floyd, who later became lead singer of seminal Texas punk band The Dicks. Legend has it that Butler, a few years older than Floyd, told the youngster, “It’s cool to be weird.”

“I believe that exchange was the spark that ignited Texas punk,” Daniel said. “No band summed up the fury of Texas punk more than The Dicks.”

click to enlarge San Antonio artist Erika Muth explores trains through her zine Freight Dialogue. - Erika Muth
Erika Muth
San Antonio artist Erika Muth explores trains through her zine Freight Dialogue.
Fellow riders

The other artists in Daniel’s “Rail Practitioners” show bring varied approaches to approaches to exploring and documenting train culture.

Michael Greene, a Burlington Northern railroad worker from New Braunfels, will present his “Finding Herby” series. “Herby,” a rail moniker, became an obsession for Greene during his career, and he cut the drawings off railcars using a torch before they were scrapped.

Greene collaborated with other Herby fanatics who collected their collections of work for a “Finding Herby” exhibit, which debuted this summer at the New Braunfels Railroad Museum. It’s being partially reprised for Daniel’s show.

Another of the participants, San Antonio’s Erika Muth, explores trains through her zine Freight Dialogue. For the exhibition, she’ll display large scale poster versions of layouts from the publication.

“It’s a vessel for creating things in the spirit of the railroad,” Muth wrote in Up Magazine last year. “The draw of trains and graffiti is finding beauty in the inaccessible, decrepit, and (what most would consider) ugly places.”

Shawnee Miller, meanwhile, is a tattoo artist and train rider whose approach to the culture includes painting and large-scale street art. She recently completed a group mural in honor of the late artist Margaret Killgallen, herself a train rider. Together with Daniel, Barry McGee and others, Killgallen helped form San Francisco’s Mission School graffiti art movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Rounding out the FL!GHT Gallery show’s lineup are Matthew Rodriguez and Spencer Akin.

Rodriguez, also known as Briar Bonifacio, was part of a late-’90s freight train graffiti crew called “addicts” — the lower case is intentional. Voted best graphic artist in the Austin Chronicle’s 2021 “Best Of” poll, Rodriguez’s work spans genres, including video and animation. However, he’s best known for his cartoony street art, including large-scale murals.

Spencer Akin, also known as True to Death, is another rail nut and moniker fan whose artistic pursuits include photography and zine-making. His Instagram is chock full of images of train graffiti, mostly documented in Southern California.

‘Speed and machinery’

Why do trains still command a special enough place in the American psyche to warrant art shows?

“For starters, a fascination with speed and machinery,” Daniel explained. “Manifest destiny, of course. But more than anything, trains obliterate time and distance. As does cinema. They’re both linear. And they both allow you to be someplace else against the rules of time. For the first time, when rails came around, you could be across the continent in a week.”

That speaks to perhaps the most fundamental of American ideals: the desire to ditch the past and find a better life. It’s what led millions of immigrants to America and continues to do so.

To Daniel, rail art’s current relevance stems from its alignment with punk culture.

“The last important art movement of Western civilization was punk,” explains Daniel, “and train culture and punk culture cohabitated. Not punk in the sense of spiked haircuts. Punk just means free underground culture.”

In keeping with that ethos, “Rail Practitioners” presents a new approach to archival practice that moves past traditional gatekeepers.

“The standard archival model is you find an institution, they box everything up, and a researcher comes in for access,” Daniel said. “My core practice, ultimately, is to find a new method of archive practice.”

And his ultimate goal?

“Inspiring another generation of people to make cool shit.”

"Rail Practitioners"
FL!GHT Gallery, 112R Blue Star
Opening Friday, October 1, 6-10 p.m.
Closing Friday, October 22, 6-9 p.m. with Who is Bozo Texino? screening at 7 p.m.

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