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.

On the Trail of the Train-Squashed Penny

Four pennies lying on a train track

In an age where one may receive instant communication on where distant acquaintances are eating lunch and realtime updates on the line at the grocery store, The Orbit thought it might be fun go back and explore a slow burn pastime that’s as old as coal-fueled locomotives and nearly-worthless coinage. That, of course, is the sport of creating train-squashed pennies.

I know, I know–a sport? It’s an activity that makes yogurt-making look like The X Games, but bear with me. Squashing a penny is going to involve some transportation to the track (we recommend a bicycle ride followed by a walk down the ties) and the non-physical cunning of more rugged and/or glamorous pseudo-sports like hunting or sailing or stock car racing.

Both one-cent coinage and interstate rail infrastructure exist all over the place, so this is definitely not a uniquely Pittsburgh thing. That said, our fair city is surrounded by train tracks and there are many easy access points to get to the rails. It literally costs pennies to participate and hopefully by now you’ve got ObamaCare in case you lose an arm. The world is your squashing ground!

Train-squashed penny found against gravel and a rail tie

Found! Squashed penny amongst the gravel along the rail tie off the track

I’d like to train squash a penny. How do I do that?

You put a penny on a train track, you come back later, you pick up the penny. What’s to know? Oh sure: it seems this simple. (It is almost this simple.) But there are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Safety. It goes without saying that if one encounters an oncoming train, get thee away from the track! Squashed pennies are great, but they’re not worth losing a life or limb over. There may be pennies in heaven, but there are no trains to squash them!

2. Choose your location wisely. Not all tracks are actually in use. There is no disappointment in life quite so devastating as returning a day or two later to find out that one’s pennies remain on the track still legal tender. It’s that kind of indignity that will send young penny-squashers screaming to video game consoles, vowing to conduct their transactions solely with charge cards when the they grow up. Don’t let this happen! Know the active tracks! Stake them out, if necessary! Often you can tell just by looking: tracks in use are smooth and shiny; unused ones will quickly develop a thin layer of rust.

3. Pay attention to the weather. Train tracks are not flat–they have a gentle arc, which leaves the coins suspended in unanchored balance. A heavy rain could easily dislodge the pennies before Norfolk-Southern has a chance to flatten them.

4. In for a penny, in for a pound. Pennies are cheap. Heck, they’re practically worthless–that’s why we squash them! Don’t just bring one, grab a handful! They don’t all pay off (see next item) so you should take the gardener’s approach: one for me, one for the bugs*.

5. Locating squashed pennies is no walk in the park. Sometimes you lay coins down just to come back later and find no trace of them. Were they absconded with? Lost in the weeds? Jettisoned from the rails? Who knows! The clever flattener will mark his or her starting point carefully and may still need to don deerstalker and pipe, spindly fingers stretched in concentration to locate the far-flung Abraham.

Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #1, day one

Where can I squash a penny?

A fine question! Obviously one needs to locate an active set of rails (see above), but where to do that? Here are some easy-access suggestions:

  • Riverfront Park, Millvale. Right as you enter the park from either 40th Street Bridge exit ramp or the town of Millvale you’re forced to cross two sets of tracks. This is where we squashed our pennies. [Only the set nearer to the river appear in use. The pair we placed on the other tracks were still there the next morning.]
  • Panther Hollow. Taking South Neville Street all the way to the bottom of Panther Hollow, you’ll cross tracks at the base of a bunch of CMU buildings. These still get plenty of daily use. Drop off a couple cents on your way to school or work and they’ll be squashed by the time Jeopardy starts.
  • Riverfront Park, South Side. The bicycle trail runs alongside the train tracks throughout the South Side, so there are ample opportunities to drop some coin, frolic, get a tattoo, binge drink, etc. and return to hunt for your treasure.
Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #2, day two


* In our experiment for this story the result was exactly as described: four pennies placed on the track, two flattened pennies found. We never located the other two.

Two Great Tastes: Snow & Trains

Coal car in snow

Coal car and warehouse, Lawrenceville

If the Milton S. Hershey Company is to be believed, chocolate and peanut butter are two great tastes that taste great together.  The number of great one-two combinations certainly doesn’t stop there, though.  I’d suggest that the guitar and the accordion are two great sounds that harmonize great together.  Fresh mowed grass and burning charcoal are certainly two great aromas that smell great together.  Kirsten’s mother believed that bright orange and deep purple were two great colors that looked great together, and I wouldn’t argue about that, though I don’t think I’ve run it up the flagpole myself.  Watching French cop movies with a cat on your chest are certainly two great sensations that, uh, feel good together.

If you’ve spent any time around Bloomfield, you know that Zubaz and tank tops are two great fashions that look great together.  Deep-fried cod and mac & cheese are two great solemn religious observances that celebrate the rebirth of Christ great together.  A lot of people will tell you that biceps and tattoo ink are in this same league, but we’re staying mum on that one.

Where am I going with this?  Oh yeah!  Here on this first day of Spring, let’s say goodbye to Ol’ Coldipants with one of the action blog photographer’s great two-fers: snow and trains. Black rail cars, white snow, blips of color that pop like the first flowers right around the corner–they just work, and they work great together.

Rail yard with empty coal trains

Rail yard, Duquesne

Railroad switch in snow

Rail switch, Lawrenceville

Coal car with graffiti reading "I Don't Give a Fuck"

“I Don’t Give a Fuck”, Duquesne

Coal cars in snow

Coal cars, Lawrenceville