Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island

Off the Rails: An Orbit Awakening in Boxcar Tagging

detail of boxcar with graffiti of puzzle piece reading "No sleep till Pittsburgh"

No sleep ’till Pittsburgh

What a pleasant surprise! To wake up to a subculture that’s been around forever[1] and yet somehow completely eluded any level of popular consciousness. At least, this blogger was totally ignorant of its existence until some time not too long ago.

Whether you pay attention or not, you’ve seen the big, spray-painted graffiti that either decorates or defiles freight trains, depending on one’s point-of-view. The same sort of multi-color highly-stylized calligraphs of tagger names and inside jokes that show up under bridges and the back sides of commercial buildings end up on the large steel canvases provided by Norfolk & Western and the Chessie System.

yellow boxcar with graffiti of a cartoon man smoking cigarette

Cash & Carry / Got head? / Sluto

But look a little closer–you usually have to get right up on the boxcars to see them[2]–and there’s a whole world of much more subtle human interaction with the trains. Here, there are small, simple line drawings, monikers, arch messages, and coded insignias, dates, and locations created (we assume) by an entirely different type of graffiti writer and likely intended for a very different audience.

Is this just street tagging on a different surface or is there something more going on here? Are these committed by train-hoppers, hobos, or just bored teenagers who live near train yards? Maybe the tags equate to an American form of trainspotting–more punk respectable and less trenchcoat nebbish?

detail of boxcar with graffiti of grave stone with message "The Ghouls"

The Ghouls

Almost always, the tags include three- or four-character numerical codes: 11/15 or 8/10 or 6/08, for example. We assume these are abbreviated month/year dates, but who knows? If so, apparently Y2K’s lesson in the need for full four-digit years doesn’t apply to these folks–they’re “future proof”.

It turns out that entire academic theses have been written on the subject. We haven’t read them (at least, not yet), so we certainly can’t answer these questions. But The Orbit likes to imagine the train cars become both the largest and most random of bottles to which these writers toss their messages to exchange whereabouts, news, and rail-riding one-upmanship in a very analog, low-tech manner.

yellow boxcar with graffiti of a mountain range

Retribalize, back to sea level / Lovely Spring / (unnamed)

Even in our extremely limited survey, one tag kept reappearing. In it, the sun is rising over a barren mountain, squiggly cloud gestures float in the sky, and the text Retribalize / adios – mutha is written in loose cursive over an arced train track/arrow. In each case, there’s an additional bonus message: Back to sea level or E.B. Creep – Co. or Wish you were here… A version of this particular scrawl showed up on so many cars that we didn’t even include all the photos of ones we found. A cruise around the Google machine proves this is no anomaly–the Retribalizer may or may not get around, but his or her tags sure do.

boxcar graffiti of mountain, sunrise, and train tracks with text "Retribalize, adios-mutha 10/5"

Retribalize, E.B. Creep

boxcar graffiti of mountain, sunrise, and train tracks with text "Retribalize, adios-mutha, wish you were here 6/08"

Retribalize, wish you were here…

boxcar graffiti of a jug with a hat and the message "Retribe's spot!"

The response: Retribe’s spot!

A final note: we have it on some decent authority that the Packaging Corporation of America, whose plant in the Strip District provided such convenient access to a weekly new supply of boxcars, is moving out of the city (to Cheswick). If that’s the case, and there are no longer any train cars on Railroad Street (sigh), that will definitely be a bummer. But we won’t stop collecting tags–we may just have to work a little harder to find them.

Until then, in the eloquent, bilingual words of Retribalize, adios – mutha”!

boxcar graffiti of old man with hat and text "here today, gone tomorrow"

Here today, gone tomorrow


[1] At least, around as long as hobos have been jumping trains.
[2] It goes without saying, be safe: make sure the trains are not in motion if and when you take a look.