There is a long-winded, obscure history of North American railroad markings, otherwise known as monikers, that by many accounts predates the popularized New York graffiti tale. Depending on whom you’re speaking to, the chronology and key players may differ drastically.
Ultimately, this is a direct result of a folklore culture, where publicizing information was once shamed and ostracizing was probable. In the mid ‘90s, monikers began to take on a new form, evolving from the traditional signature and character-based style. Troy Lovegates, once known as Other, began to make his presence known in the North American boxcar pool. Working with conventional oil bars used by previous generations, Troy applied not just black or white when he drew, but instead used both to create abnormal, oddly distorted, well-rendered characters. What made Troy’s work really stand out was his shading and texturized faces, created solely by using his fingers. They were a remarkable rarity unlike anything else. “Trains are amazing like that. All that work and history just fades into oblivion. It is hearsay. Bonfire tales and great stories off into the night air,” Troy tells me.
When your work started popping up on boxcars, I remember they stood out immediately because there wasn’t anything like it at the time. You must have been aware that what you were creating was unusual to the archetype marking before, right?
I really got into drawing outside at the end of the ‘80s and into early ‘90s. The scene was very hip-hop oriented in Canada. I was always sort of on the fringes of that planet because I was such a massive failure at lettering and what I was doing at the time was considered strange. I mean if you did a character it had to be like a superhero or Daffy Duck or some Star Wars stuff. Nothing original. I never liked that garbage, or maybe I did. Maybe I wished I could be the super hip-hop-masterblaster lettering genius with the perfectly rendered Ironman bursting out of the middle of my piece, but I wasn’t. In 1996 when Take 5 gave me my first oil sticks in a Vancouver train yard it just seemed natural and obvious to draw like I did on trains. So I think I was more aware that I didn’t fit in but I wanted to, than I was aware that I was actually doing something unique.
There seemed to be a lot of imitators after your work became known.
I think mostly my whole history has been lost. There is a whole new generation and before them nothing was recorded on the Internet. It is all lost in time. Trains are amazing like that. All that work and history just fucking fades into oblivion. It is hearsay. Bonfire tales and great stories off into the night air. I mean, I guess I could drop a thousand crappy scanned photos online somewhere but I’d sorta like it just to all fade away.
Yeah, every train will eventually get sun bleached, painted over or scrapped. But you still have some residual left out there on the railroad. You shade all your drawings on railcars with your fingers, right? So every time you do a car you probably end up with oil and grease residue on everything. Haha.
Yup, grown ass man in a dark train yard finger painting. Out in the yard painting and drinking a few beers and your hands get white oil stick all over them, but beer makes you need to piss all the time and your black pants all end up with white oil stains from unzipping to piss and it looks like I got jizz around all my pant crotches, Is crotches a word? The best is when you leave a little nub of oil stick in a pocket somewhere in the wash and it melts in the dryer and leaves oil stick constellations all over your nice clothes.
When’s the last time you hopped a train and was there any trip that stood out more than the others?
Haha. Man, I love the times before the Internet. There used to be all these rumors up in northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan that I was this hardcore hobo that moved drugs from city to city by boxcar. I had this strange imposter who would show up in these towns and do really bad canvases of my work and sign them with an awful rendition of my tag for like $20 He would sleep at writers’s houses and steal their sports Walkmans and stuff. It was hilarious. I would visit these towns and kids would be scared of me and have all these myths about my bar fights and rolling meth labs in boxcars. They also thought Labrona was my girlfriend for some reason. But the truth is that my characters are more hobos than me. I leave them to ride the rails. I think the last time I really hopped a train was maybe 7 years ago and that was just up to Trois-Rivières from Montreal. My friend Fred and I hopped out on a beautiful spring day and four hours later was in a friggin snowstorm freezing to death up in the tundra. We jumped out first lights we saw and walked around this desolate cold city looking for shelter. This dude with leather pants made out of numerous road kill roughly patched together invited us to his apartment and gave us tons of beer. At one point he left the room and came back in with a giant turban on with this crazy jagged nerd sword, you know those head shop swords? Like gamer wall pieces. Anyways, he was swinging it around like a madman. I got some good pictures of me posing slitting his throat but we weren’t comfortable sleeping there. In the end he was twitching and got all sad.
Another time way long ago in 1993, this Scottish guy and I were roaming Europe by jumping on intercity trains and locking ourselves in the bathrooms. By the time the conductor got the doors open and figured out we didn’t have tickets the train had already started. They told us we had to get off at the next stop but we only hopped on express trains and the next stop would be 2 hours away. We ended up getting stuck in this town in Portugal with only one corner store, no money and no intercity trains stopping in this strange Groundhog Day city. Everyday we would leave this town on foot or by hitchhiking and in the evening we would come over a hill and there would be a town in the distance and it would be the same place! So one night we slept near a little train yard and early in the morning a tiny freight train came. It was pathetic by American standards, maybe 5 mini cars or something. We hopped on the last train and it was just beams, no floors. No place to really sit down. We could see the wheels and the tracks below our feet and we were so tired. I remember tying my belt around a ladder step so if I fell asleep that I wouldn’t fall into the gear, but we fell asleep anyway. When we woke up the train was moving back in the direction we had left like it had delivered something or picked something up and was going back to the Groundhog Day city. The train was so small that we yelled and waved the driver down and he stopped the train all pissed off and kicked us off in the middle of this hot nowhere full of cork trees. But really, most of the times I tried hopping trains I would give up pretty easily and start hitchhiking. I was always more interested in meeting people and the madness that ensued. I hitched through a big swath of Europe, cross Canada numerous times and the southern United States, across Costa Rica and Taiwan. Take 5 and I even caught a ride way down in Western Sahara.
The Western Sahara? And with someone who is restricted to a wheelchair? Sounds like a movie.
We were trying to get to Mauritania to hop this train through the Sahara desert. My friend had done this and she said it was a magical dream; only problem was Mauritania had become lawless and you needed an army convoy to enter. So, we ended up adventuring through Western Sahara and Morocco instead. We slept under the stars where sand dunes slid into the ocean, got chased out of a town in a robbery attempt, went to a night market and a gun fight broke out and we almost got trampled, and hitchhiked across all of Spain to get to the ferry to Africa. We found a whole shitload of hash pooped out in condoms stuffed in the back of a toilet at this sketchy hotel we stayed at. On the way back to Europe I caught this night passenger train to Tangier that had a ripped up abandoned train car with no lights on and old couches and a rusty old café. I went back there to sleep and woke up with these dudes trying to steal my bag. It was definitely non-stop, like a movie.
You participated in a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts not long ago and as a result of that program I witnessed a lot of new sculptural work from you. How did that program inform working three-dimensionally and what did you enjoy most about that experience? The setting there is incredible.
I wish I could have stayed out at the Headlands forever. I don’t know how to drive a car so I biked out there across the Golden Gate Bridge maybe three or four times a week for a whole year. Every single time I saw the most beautiful something. The most beautiful wave, the most beautiful sailboat, the most beautiful sunset, the most beautiful fog, trees, waves, breeze. Just coming around the final corner to my studio and all you hear is waves breaking and a bell chiming on a buoy out in the ocean. The city is gone, the eucalyptus trees clear your sinuses and dead silence at night except for coyotes howling. Some nights I would work until 3 or 4 AM and then go sit up on the old battlements watching the moon and stars curled up in my sleeping bag and get a few hours rest before biking back in the morning. You could look out over the city but you couldn’t hear a sound of it. They have a huge woodshop full of donated machinery. It really opened up the world of woodworking to me. It is way harder to make my little sculptures now that I have my own studio with just hand tools. Doable, but I always dream of the Headlands.
Similar to my own life, you have lived many different lives in many different cities. What are some of your fondest moments of living in Buenos Aries and what’s it like to live in post tech-takeover San Francisco, which is the first American city you have ever lived in, correct?
My parents were always moving when I was young. We lived in Michigan, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. By the time they settled down they had ingrained the travel bug in me and I never stopped. I think up to a few years ago I was on the road maybe 6 months of the year. I lived in Europe for maybe 3 years and Buenos Aires for almost a year, as well as Taiwan. But a lot of the time I would never stop, just keep on moving from town to town. I loved Buenos Aires because at the time you could just really go paint wherever you wanted. Once I was painting on a wall that Labrona and I had just decided to paint in the middle of the day and two police officers came up behind us and were watching and smoking. I was a bit worried because I think we were painting on the side of an electrical building or some federal service building. Zero permission. But after 5 minutes of watching us one of the cops said, “Muy, muy bien!” and they walked off. I love San Francisco because it is so friggin beautiful. I mean I take the BART or bike out to the middle of nowhere and go hiking or walk along the beach all day with my puppy or take train rides to small towns on the weekends with my wife. It really is all about the nature here to me. The city itself, argh. You have these beautiful houses and all this art history, skateboarding history, 49er gold miner /hobo history and now the current state is all tech which I just not that interested in. Hahaha. I’ll leave it at that. It is not my scene. I am that dude hiding up in the bushes with my dog drinking beers and hanging out with the wierdos.
So do you find yourself living a more reclusive life now than previously? Perhaps even more so because you’re once again in a new city?
Yeah, not intentionally a recluse, I just think it is way harder to make friends in your ‘40s. All my old friends are spread out across the world in various cities. I feel like I know someone everywhere. I wish we could all end up living in the same city.
Your work is completely figurative. Do you think you will ever deviate away from that as your primary subject?
I am a misanthropist, but also an ardent people watcher. I will just roam the city and hang out on the busiest corners and just watch faces, body shapes, the lurchers, lurkers, stumblers, cocky strollers and angry yellers. I love to watch them and steal their souls. I think I am stuck in my ways in that sense. I will always be drawing humanity.
When did your original name Other start being replaced by Troy Lovegates?
Ahhh. I set up an email account back in 1998 and it was primarily for art stuff. Originally I tried other@%$^&#*.com, but every email with Other in it was taken. I didn’t want to use my real name because I was doing so much illegal work at that time So, I just made up the name Troy Lovegates. I guess when the rest of the world was setting up their email they actually used their real name, so people started thinking my name was Troy. As time moved on and I started getting gallery shows they just assumed my name was Troy Lovegates and would throw it on the flyer. I just went along with it.
You have murals scattered around the globe.
What do you enjoy most about painting large scale and is there any one piece you painted that you took pleasure in doing the most?
A lot of days I start heading to my studio to work and I don’t want to go inside. Instead I end up just wandering all day. I hate being indoors. Studios are lonely boxes. Being an artist is one lonely ass thing to become. Being outside painting is a marriage of painting and fresh air. I love it. The last mural I painted in Toronto was 13 pillars with 13 locals painted on them. I took images of people who passed through the park and painted them on the pillars. I really enjoyed how the community embraced the wall. People would come by with food and drinks and just to talk for hours. That just doesn’t happen at my studio.
I actually always ask artists who primarily work in studios all day if they enjoy being so secluded and alone. It definitely differs from person to person, but they either hate it or love it. In a perfect scenario, how would you change your creative process so you wouldn’t be trapped in a studio so often? Like if there were no financial or physical limitations.
It’s a very strange process being in a tiny studio for six months alone working on an exhibition that leads up to one night of overwhelming social engagement and drinking. I like it and I hate it depending on the day. If I had the cash I would own a house with a backyard studio where I could do woodworking, printmaking and painting outdoors on nice days and roll everything inside during crappy weather. It would have a loft so that other artists could visit and share the workspace with me, work on projects together, a residency of sorts. I was really dreaming of buying just a garage and fixing it up to be a residency/shared studio, but the last cities I have lived in have been impossibly expensive.
With that being said, you’re an avid get-out-of-the-house-and-go-travel kinda guy. Now that you’ve recently had a child (congratulations!) is that aspect of your life curbed indefinitely?
Ha, I don’t think so. I am a stay at home dad in the day but really, my son and I are just going to be going on hikes everywhere and short train rides and ocean wanders. He is 4 months old and has already been to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City, all by train!
What have been the most challenging and rewarding parts of pursuing art as career for you? There is no going back now, right? Haha.
I think the most challenging thing about being an artist for me has been the PR thing. Repping yourself. Finding work and exhibitions. I wish I could just hide away and paint in some cabin somewhere and never have to look at a computer screen again. Never have to write a grant, never have to pitch a mural or exhibition. Have it all just come to me, but it doesn’t. I need to keep on it and some years are shit broke empty and some years are full of opportunity. You never know. But with the freedom and the feeling of reaching a new level in your work, all frustrations are short lived. There is definitely no going back at this point I am 44 years old and it is either being an artist or being a dishwasher. I happily put all my eggs in one basket. Onwards!
Troy Lovegates has an Instagram
*Interview and portraits by Austin McManus