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.

Lackzoom Acidophilus

Terra cotta facade storefront in Pittsburgh with the engraved names Lackzoom and Acidophilus

5438 Penn Ave: Lackzoom Acidophilus

I must have passed it a thousand times or more.  Certainly I’d noticed the white terra cotta facade and its odd trapezoidal shape, canted in such a way that it doesn’t quite align with the street, like a mis-set bone.

But it wasn’t until very recently that I happened to actually look up and take in the detail above the doorway/windows.  Two names (?) permanently formed into the ceramic tile that read like ancient runes, some hep jazzcat jive, or a preposterous stage name: Lackzoom Acidophilus.

The small, two-story building at 5438 Penn Avenue turns out to have been the one-time laboratory and corporate headquarters for the lineal parent of the General Nutrition Corporation (or GNC), the Pittsburgh-based retail giant that made a fortune over the last half century urging America to “Live Well” vis-a-vis shopping and popping (malls and pills, respectively).

Terra cotta tile reading "Lackzoom"

It’s no surprise that I’m not the only one to ever spot this curious storefront, but there’s remarkably little information out there on it.  The definitive piece seems to be a short Western Pennsylvania History Magazine article written in 2003 by Chris Potter.

Potter’s story details David Shakarian, founder of GNC, whose:

… Armenian parents ran a business called “Lackzoom” which sold yogurt, buttermilk, and Bulgarian acidophilus–milk fortified with the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus to intestinal bacteria that make digesting milk difficult for some.

Apparently the original Lackzoom never survived The Great Depression, but Shakarian would go on to found his own health food store, and eventually the GNC chain. In 1983, the year before his death, Shakarian was named by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest Pittsburgher on their annual list. Live well, indeed.

Pittsburgh ghost sign reading "Lackzoom and Acidophilus"

Ghost sign, obscured by flora: “Lackzoom and Acidophilus”

H.W. 46 ft. 3-18-1936

St. Patrick's Day Flood marker, Manchester

This intriguing painted marker lives on the corner of a big brick warehouse building at Island and Preble Aves. in Manchester.  I came across it bicycle-riding through the neighborhood last summer.  It read like some weird code: H.W. 46 ft.  It wasn’t until thinking about it days later that I put the pieces together: a date (March 18, 1936) and a measurement in feet.  This had to be a high water marker for the Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936.

Floods happen in Pittsburgh somewhat regularly–especially right at the end of winter when all the collected ice upriver starts melting en masse–but the flood of 1936 was The Big One, the most devastating in the city’s history and the one that provoked massive flood control efforts in and around the city.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington during flood of 1936

View of downtown Pittsburgh during the flood of 1936 from Mt. Washington

I had a heard about the flood a few times, first and most memorably from a much older co-worker at a place I was temping in the late 1990s who had personally experienced it as a child.  He had this vivid memory of looking down on the city from Mt. Washington and seeing giant rolls of newsprint from the Pittsburgh Post printing facility downtown inflated by the water and floating down the river like giant marshmallows.

I’ve come across very few other physical artifacts of the flood (although one would think there are many others), so this was a really neat discovery.  It wasn’t long, though, until I came across this second marker for the flood on a different ride, but also in the same general area of Manchester (exact address unknown).

St. Patrick's Day Flood marker, Manchester

St. Patrick’s Day Flood marker, Manchester