Long before the railroad cars of North America were littered with spray paint scrawls and under more strict and paranoid post-9/11 surveillance, enigmatic markings of a cowboy smoking a pipe overwhelmingly adorned railcars across the country and created mysticism as to who was responsible.
These esoteric characters have been present for nearly 40 years and are often accompanied with phrases, various fictitious names, and early titles such as Gypsysphinx, The Grab Iron Kid, Tramp Royale, and eventually, “Colossus of Roads” as permanent identification.
The individual responsible for these mysterious markings was later exposed to a broader audience when Bill Daniel released his 16-years-in-the-making vagabondage railroad film project Who is Bozo Texino? The author’s identity was surprising to everyone, as false speculation had circulated forever. In the film a much older, well-spoken, bearded gentleman wearing a cowboy hat appears on screen as he proclaims ownership and explains the meaning behind a number of phrases written under the famed moniker. The audience discovers that they are self-portraits and, in a bold proclamation, the artist states, “More self-portraits than Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gough or any of ‘em out riding the rails. Have a lot larger audience than they ever had in their lifetime.”
His artistic undertakings are not limited to his work on railcars, but extend to photography, archiving, book making, stenciling, installations, and mail art, through which he has been corresponding with others under the name buZ blurr for over 30 years. The importance of his artwork has been long overlooked and with a limited word count for this interview, covering the depth of his story is an impossible reach.
Please explain your art practice you so cleverly describe as “Boxcar Icon Dispatch.”
Boxcar Icon Dispatch. My awareness of the folk art tradition of chalk marks on the rolling stock came at an early age by observing them, as a young boy while my father was a section foreman of a track maintenance crew, on passing trains. We lived in a section house by the main track provided by the railroad, near the tool house where the equipment for changing out ties and rails were stored, along with the motor car for transporting them to needed repairs on the track. The medium of the chalk marks was usually a drawing of an icon, a person, a hare, a rose, etc…with a name and date. My dad told me they were the work of hobos. Our sole source of heat in the section house was a big potbellied coal stove, and they used to run a work train with gondolas of coal for the section crews to unload at the various section houses on the route between Wynne and Helena, Arkansas.
Tell me about the first marking you became aware of. Over the years, which particular ones have stood out or have you favored?
I remember being particularly impressed by the rendering of a profile of a gentleman with a puffed railroad cap, with the caption of Omar, on one of the coal cars, while my dad and his three section hands feverishly scooped out a big pile of coal hopefully enough to last us through the winter, before the train had to move on to the next section house. I even saw a J.B.King Esq signature occasionally. Over the years the ubiquitousness and prevalence of Herby, The Rambler, and the second or third generation conveyor of Bozo Texino were a continuing inspiration. Now they have been mostly supplanted by spray and time.
How many cars do you estimate you have marked since you began this lengthy endeavor?
I have no idea how many drawings have been made since Nov. 1971. At one time while I was a longfield brakeman I figured I was averaging about 30 a day, 6 days a week. I have had periods when the obsession had me in a severe grip, and I drove around to various yards on my off day, and would do over 200.
Are you still marking cars currently?
Yes, I’m still marking cars. Yesterday icon caption was, ANY THINK CAN HAPPEN. buZ blurr 1943-2043
Do you think you will ever reconsider your decision to remain anonymous forever?
I don’t suppose I can unring the bell of all those images and texts that have been connected to me by Google and other search engines of the Internets. Hard to remain underground and anonymous on the information superhighway, especially if at a certain point you want to proclaim your work, despite its outlaw nature, and the fact it may be viewed unfavorably and subject to intervention.
You come from 3 generations of railroad workers and retired after 41 years. It’s sort of an understatement to say railroading is in your blood, yeah? Is it your religion, in a sense?
Yes, three generations of railroad men; my grandfather was also a section foreman for Missouri Pacific from 1904 until 1945; my father, also in track maintenance, from 1942 until 1963; and my own career, as a trainman, from 1962 until 2003. Each of us with 41 years of service, over a 99 years span of time. My father and grandfather both certainly had a loyalty and dedication to the railroad as a provider of livelihood that would border on worship. My own attitude leaned more towards alienation account the indebtedness we incurred subsequent to the elimination of the section system of track maintenance which transitioned to wholesale reconditioning by large rail and tie gangs periodically, and obliged the old man to accept a management position as an Assistant Roadmaster, rather than the option to return as a laborer, account his limited seniority, to one of those traveling reconditioning gangs. This was during a time Missouri Pacific was attempting to get out of bankruptcy, and unfortunately the old man had a skinflint bastard as a District Engineer, who routinely disallowed most of his expense account, and no moving allowances when we tried to keep up with his various assignments all over the system, at least in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
Were there a lot of tramps/hobos riding when you worked as a trainman? If so, what was your attitude towards them?
Oh yeah… yes, there were a lot of older tramps when I first hired out, and our attitude was being helpful, but saying “I didn’t see you.” Then there were periods of fewer or more frequent travelers. Post 9-11, and the increased security, they are well-hidden or none at all through this small town. Of course on this northward directional traffic, except for locals and Amtrak, we haven’t had the recreational hobo adventurers like other routes have had of late. Back in the ‘70s we had two veteran hobos who made this their home base. One camped out on Coffee Creek in the wye, and another had a lean-to built in a cane break on Caney Creek.
Has there ever been an attraction to move to a big city or have you always been content in Kansas? You have been known to call your current hometown “Surrealville.”
Yes, Surrealville, Principality of buZ, is my fantasy world issuing authority for my philatelic artistamps. Surrealville has also become known as the source point for boxcar icon dispatches. I remained in this small town where all the work was, when I could have been riding the fast freights out of a bigger terminal, exactly to accommodate the avoidance of people. This isolation down among the cars, perhaps, fostered the communication of the self-absorbed investigations of my limitations in the form of boxcar icon dispatches.
Have you ever had an encounter with a graffiti writer in a yard or anyone for that matter while you were marking cars?
After so many years it would seem probable. Surrealville is also a delusional disguise of my actual locale, which is in such an out of the way, middle of nowhere, place, I have yet to encounter any graffiti writer, if you mean the spray paint variety. I have had a number of visitors from the moniker culture wishing to mark in the small Surrealville yard, although intentional. I have had two encounters, subsequent to my retirement; with track inspectors in hi-rail trucks that asked me to leave the property.
Would you consider yourself a loner?
Yes, I am a loner, by dent of my occupation and the isolation of long hours on switch engines, with limited interactions with other people, and the awareness of my penchant for embarrassing misreading of social cues. All I blame on the self-diagnosed Asperger’s Disorder, and other manic- depressive traits, plus my ‘maniac’ anger when challenged or sassed, makes it best to avoid people account my dissatisfaction with my own performance. Rancor and Shame! My wife describes my mercurial mood swings as, “Tap dance or suicide…the Fred Astaire of despair.” She has also said, ” You never know about you. You’re just like Hekyll, Jekyll, and Hyde.”
Would you consider yourself a connoisseur and/or researcher of linguistics?
Despite the risks of malapropisms, and throat cancer, most of my use of language has been about my limitations given my great-grandfather was a newspaper man who learned the printers trade in partial apprenticeship with Samuel L. Clemens, on Orion Clemens’ Hannibal, Missouri newspaper, and worked as a reporter for a Quincy, Illinois, paper covering the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1858 senatorial campaign. Subsequent to the Civil War in which he fought for the South, along with another brother, while two other brothers fought for the Union, he migrated to Arkansas, where it was said he could spell correctly every word in the English language between bouts of binge drinking. Whereas I am left to wonder why the sparks between my synapses are so broad as to border on dyslexia. He also had the mechanical aptitude to keep his Linotype working while I’m sorely lacking in that department, while still fascinated by the printed image and text.
How long have you been participating in mail art?
Subsequent to beginning to utilize the boxcar icon dispatch as a networker in the folk art tradition of railroad graffiti in Nov. 1971, I discovered the existence of mail art networking by reading the articles by Thomas Albright, the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, in two consecutive issues of Rolling Stone magazine, April 1972, entitled Correspondence Art. When the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street album came out with the design using all those photographs of Robert Frank, along with a series of postcards, I merely mailed all the postcards to the list of networkers in the articles, and the response to that mailed got me hooked.
How did you arrive at creating “Caustic Jelly Posts?”
Always interested in photography, being poor with a house full of kids, the only camera I could afford was a Polaroid Swinger, and even the expense of the film was a saved for luxury. The B&W film for it was 107C. Dr. Land’s lens worked like a film camera and exposed the negative upside down and backwards, and the print was a transfer of the negative image when it was pulled through the rollers that spread the magic developing liquids, which contained “Caustic Jelly.” Polaroid warned to discard for they could cause alkaline burns and other injuries. However I kept them, and after the dried or cured, began to experiment with them, at first silhouettes, but eventually stencils while utilizing the negative image as a guide. By cutting away the opposite in the negative, and turning it over the back of it was black, thus you had a graphic positive image again. Then you photocopy the results for reduction to stamp size, compose a sheet, perforate, and Viola!, you have Caustic Jelly Post. Used as portrait technique, given the limited area of the negative, I had to stop down the aperture, and get extremely close to have any detail. The subjects of these in your face blinding flash collaborative performances felt the Caustic portion was an accurate description of the whole process.
A mutual friend of ours told me about an interesting project of yours involving a Ford and a Chevy. I have been meaning to send keys. Can you explain these projects?
Rust never Rests, and Fill The Ford (Fully) Folly. The 1962 model Chevrolet pickup, correlates to my hire year on the railroad, I purchased in 1972 as a work vehicle. Unfortunately it was one of those Monday morning paint jobs at the GM plant and quickly earned the designation Rust Never Rests since it was rapidly turning from baby Blue Monday to various tones of oxidation. When it was about to expire in 1984 I limped it, on about two cylinders, to its final resting place beside our old house we moved with the intention of fixing up on my wife’s country property, another failed project abandoned for a number of reasons. True to its name I began to fill the cab with found tortured shards of metal, bent aged spikes, ancient corroded track bolts, and the nails I seined from the ashes of the fires in our woodstove of lumber scavengered from the dunnage on flatcars. I was also picking up short pieces of cut offs from broken rails and etching words into them by means of wax resist and pouring sugar or salt water on them to accelerate the rust. These eventually filled the floor of the bed. All these bricoleur obsessions finally filled the cab, and I began to fill the interior of the missus and mine’s courting vehicle, a ’50 model 4-door Ford, when it was moved along side Rust Never Rests by my wife’s nephew from his dad’s property. This use of the site as a solitude retreat to ponder the many errors, and witness the sway and lean of the old house as it gradually collapsed, was a reminder of the accelerating years, and Po’ White Trash evidence of a stuck position. In 2004 I was invited to a festival in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, due to my involvement in Mail Art. After the festival some of the participants journeyed by train to the town of Bruges. While there on a Easter Sunday, I found an ornate key on a window sill of a building facing a freshly cobbled-stone plaza, and pocketed in my travel vest with the intention of depositing it in the Ford. Later on in Paris attempting to enter the Musee D’Orsay, the key in my vest set off the security alarm and I suppose the lady was asking what was in the jacket. When I couldn’t find the key readily in the many pockets of the vest, she became more irate as the line behind us became even longer. Finally I was able somehow to have her feel the offending object, and determine it was what I said it was, and she waved me through in obvious frustration with this stupid ugly American. Returning home I had found the perfect project to Fill The Ford (Fully) Folly, and have a continuous effort to keep the mail stream flowing by inviting mail artists to ‘ send found or unnecessary metal keys.
Your house was struck by lighting not to long ago, correct? How much damage was there?
Yes, our home was struck by lightning early Sunday morning, November 4th 2012, during a thunderstorm. The bolt hit a vent pipe that was through an upstairs bedroom closet igniting the cloths. I tried to battle the blaze with an extinguisher, and soaked blankets while the missus dialed 911. It soon became apparent we had to get out of the house. I found some trousers and we went out into the rain. The EMTs and volunteer fire department member were showing up, and the EMTs noticing my breathing difficulties talked me into getting in the ambulance out of the rain so they could administer oxygen. When my blood pressure was measured and my breathing didn’t improve they talked me into going to a nearby emergency room to see a doctor for smoke and extinguisher dust inhalation. As you can imagine things have been chaotic ever since. The fire department extinguished the blaze, but the upstairs was ruined and the downstairs was inundated by the dousing. Lots of unresolved issues are still outstanding, but we have moved into another home.
What sort of artists inspired you in the past and currently?
As you might imagine, my early juvenile influences were writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Burroughs, and the other poets of the Beat Generation. In the 10th grade in 1958-59 I read the novels of Kerouac while on all night passenger train journeys on weekends to see my girl-friend (my Maggie Cassidy) in the previous town we moved from following my father’s track maintennce career. I also read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye. In college my ambition was to be an abstract expressionist painter until the Pop Art sensibilities became apparent, then I became more enamored with photography, especially the work of Robert Frank. Currently my direction is dictated by the early artist’s stamp inspiration of E.F.HigginsIII, and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, 1914-2014, and his Autostorriccione, or self-historification, premise that permits each person to document their own unique life. Cavellini died in 1990, but his forecast of recognition at his centennial is drawing nigh.
Do you think contemporary museums will eventually wake up and catch on to this folk art tradition?
Do you wish for this to happen, or does it not matter to you?
I would love to see Rust Never Rests, and Fill The Ford (Fully) Folly on the ground floor of the Whitney…but no it doesn’t matter.
*Interview by Austin McManus