Train Writer is one name given to a graffiti artist who illegally spray paints commuter trains. Its origins date back to the birth of modern graffiti culture in New York and some consider it the truest form of graffiti. Writers travel all over the world painting on trains and face severe legal repercussions if they get caught. YOUTH spoke to a writer and asked him why he does it…
How did you get into graffiti?
I got into graffiti before I even knew what it was. I still have memories of drawing my birth name in mad ways as early as seven or eight, before progressing on to make a ‘tag name’. I was always the one that was good at drawing names in school, always getting asked to draw the names of the other lads in the class.
And then you progressed to actual graffiti?
After getting arrested my second time painting when I was thirteen, I wised up and went on to develop my craft ‘correctly’ and spent a lot of time learning in legal zones, while still badly painting streets and tracksides.
How did you get into painting trains?
Everything changed for me when I started painting trains. Trains are always higher risk, more secure and usually come with more severe punishments - huge fines or even jail. There’s some debate about how graffiti culture started, but there’s no debating that graffiti as we know it now flourished on the subway cars of New York in the 70s and 80s. Basically, what I’m getting at, is real graffiti started on trains, and for a select few, it’s still the only canvas worth painting.
Why does it appeal to you so much?
Some people can get their rocks off standing at a wall all day making art. I get it. But at the end of the day, real graffiti is illegal. It’s basically in the dictionary definition. I can’t respect anybody as a graffiti writer unless they at least occasionally partake in some of its illegal aspects, with the exception of those who have previous charges hanging over their head, and the old timers who have paid their dues already, because otherwise you’re just a street artist.
What’s the difference between a graffiti artist and a street artist?
There’s a big difference between a graffiti artist, or ‘writer’ as we call ourselves, and a street artist. Calling a writer a street artist is like calling an Irishman, English. Writers paint letters free hand for themselves and their peers whether as artistic expression or just plain vandalism. The main focus is freehand letterforms; characters can be added but only to decorate the letters. Despite what people may think, everything else, regardless of location or if they used a spray can to make it, is known as ‘street art’, made famous by that Banksy guy. With the exception of a few, writers don’t have a high opinion of street artists, seeing them as ‘blow ins’, hoping to cash in with a gallery show a few months after starting.
And that’s very different from painting trains?
Yeah, train painting couldn’t be further from a gallery show. You’re painting in high-pressure situations, as fast as possible, in-between security checks, sometimes in front of security. You’re sneaking into train yards or doing backjumps (painting at the back of a train when it stops in traffic for few minutes). It’s painting for us and only us. Writers dedicate their time to this and the only return is satisfaction, and some nice flicks and footage. All this, while taking the huge risk of getting caught, which has had people sentenced for up to three years - which is funny as fuck. They want to lock guys up for changing the colour of a surface, a non-violent crime, while sex offenders walk out with probation.
How do you gain access to the trains?
I’ve gone through fences, over fences, down fire escapes and tunnels from metro stations, even jumped onto slow moving passenger-less trains to ride them into the train depot, hiding in the unused driver’s cabin at the back of the train. I’ve spent nights watching spots so you know the suss. It takes over your life and becomes a ‘by any means necessary’ hobby, or a sport even. Every mission is like a game of football; you need a game plan. Everybody involved needs to be ‘on’, working from the same script, and most of all, you’ve got to have some idea what you’re going to do if shit goes tits up. It’s addictive.
So you work as a team?
Sometimes. Backjumps are crazy. They’re sometimes painted by like three people all using both hands; that’s six hands painting the one piece. I’ve been involved in some full on pieces that have been completed in two minutes flat. That’s teamwork. How can police react in that time?
Have you ever been caught?
No. Not since that time when I was thirteen but that was before I got into writing on trains. Most of my mates have been in some sort of trouble though. I’ve been inches away, several times, but never been caught.
Do you worry about getting caught?
The whole time your painting, 90% of you is expecting to be interrupted, whether it’s a train worker showing up to work early, security doing their rounds or a full on police raid. The latter is the worst. Your heart sinks when you here the initial ‘POLICE, POLICE!’ You usually freeze for a split second while your mind rapidly assesses the situation. Then, you make a break for it to get away by any means necessary. It’s almost like every time you go painting you accept that you could be in line for a five-hour stint sitting in a bush freezing your ass off or running a mini marathon.
What precautions do you take for getting caught?
You prepare for each mission as if you might get caught. You have to keep your house clean of potential evidence and have no evidence of past crimes with you. You need to have your passport on you if you’re in a foreign country. It will just speed up the process if they catch you and, at the end of the day, no country is going to let a foreign national out of custody without knowing who the fuck they are. You could be an illegal immigrant, or wanted for some serious charges.
What’s the best thing about being a Panel Head?
It’s taken me to cities and places I’d never have gone to if I wasn’t involved. Some of my best friends and the nicest people I know are writers from different countries. But, really it boils down to never being bored. I have a hobby that always keeps me entertained. I get huge satisfaction and reward out of doing it.
Do you think you’ll ever stop?
I’ll probably stop doing it in my home country soon because the repercussions can be severe, but I’ll keep travelling, doing it for as long as I can. Basically, I’ll keep doing it until my legs stop working.