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Hazelton: Graffiti artists should be allowed to turn boring trains into masterpieces

I’ve got a strange and potentially unpopular argument for you this week. See, the other day I was driving  when one of those traffic obstructing freight trains barreled out in front of me. 

As we all know, this can last five or six minutes and at first I was agitated. But as the train continued to roll by I began seeing this public nuisance in a new light. On every individual car there was massive, multicolored pieces of graffiti, and I realized that these trains are all potentially moving art galleries curated by “writers,” a.k.a graffiti artists.


Sure, the writers who produce these spectacular images were technically vandals that most of society looks down on, but in no way did that detract from the beauty of the train. So, my argument is this: In the same way Fort Collins allows artists to paint their electrical boxes, freight companies should allow artists to practice this “taboo” openly as a creative public art program. 

Most freight trains are derelict, rusty covered tins that make our pupils want to vomit. They’re eyesores on the American landscape that appear nearly everywhere. So why not allow people to spray a much-needed coat of paint onto their bland facades?

Well, its illegal for starters and many would argue that the people most likely to engage in this artistic expression are the riffraff of society. That might be partially true, however, graffiti is perhaps one of the only original cultural artifacts America has ever created and most individuals who participate in it are far from bad people.

Above all else, they are artists and graffiti is an integral–though often overlooked– part of our national history that has had a huge effect on the world as a whole. In my view, graffiti should be celebrated and encouraged.

People might also argue that much of the graffiti that’s plastered on trains is revolting, which I suppose has some merit. But what many people don’t realize is that graffiti artists abide by a code. Loosely understood, this code dictates that if you’re a “toy” (or a bad artist) your artwork can and should be “gone over” (or covered up by better art). In this way, there is a natural evolution toward increased quality and a social pressure to exceed in the craft.

In fact, the main reason you see graphic garbage on freight trains isn’t due to graffiti artists themselves. It’s the product of punk kids with too much time on their hands who are unversed in the craft.

Unfortunately, a lot of the truly awe-striking pieces that would otherwise dominate trains are “buffed” (or painted over with a boring color) by the freight companies. This, coupled with the fact that “bombing” (or painting) trains is illegal, serves to hinder this beautifying process.

See, graffiti is a kind of game where the objective is to appear everywhere with the most attractive imagery. And if you look back to the 80’s you can see the potential this art form has if left undisturbed. During that period, New York experienced what many would call an artistic renaissance and if contemporary society was invited to join in on the game, it could foster a more creative populace and perhaps a revival of that golden age. 

Besides, for many socio-economically disadvantaged youth, graffiti is the only art form they can afford to see in person. For many people it’s offered them a way to escape the drugs and violence that permeates their neighborhoods, and for highly talented artists it holds the potential to gain them global celebrity and legitimate employment. 


It’s also a way for marginalized individuals to express themselves while simultaneously bucking the system they see as unjust. For some people, graff–as its often called– is their passion, their community and their identity. With that in mind, is it fair to prosecute them while completely denying them a safe place to practice?  

Many of you are probably still staunchly opposed to this idea. Maybe that’s because just graffiti isn’t your thing and that’s fine. I’m not advocating for a system comprised exclusively of this genre. I would love to see painters from all schools of thought descend on trains.  It would undoubtedly add a fresh element into our otherwise dull culture and the best part is that it’s free. 

Still, the practice can be dangerous and the freight companies, even if they did allow it, might fear liability and therefore lawsuits. They might worry that their logos (that no one pays attention to) might be covered up or that their brand might appear unprofessional. Even some graffiti artists would argue that by making the practice legal, it wouldn’t qualify as graffiti and that it would strip the fun away from the action.  Others in the general public and certainly law enforcment might argue that allowing this freedom to exist would only promote further vandalism across other sections of society. 

But in the end, graffiti will continue regardless of whether we allow this specific activity or not. And honestly, what would the harm be? Is there any moral reason that this activity should be barred? 

If I got my way, the only surfaces free of paint would be statues, playgrounds and the like. Now, maybe my dream of a colorful world is due to the fact that I’m a hip-hop junkie and visual connoisseur. But let me ask you something: What would you rather see while you’re stuck in traffic? A collash of conformist, matte-colored cars, or vivid, personal artistry? I’d hope the latter, otherwise there is something very wrong with us.

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.

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