Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The markings were a secret communication system used by wanderers in the 1910s and 1920s—and represent an important part of American history.
Today, graffiti is considered by some to be a legitimate form of artistic expression and creativity. Some make a political statement, while other pieces exist merely to amuse. Think Banksy, or the artist behind this pumping heart graffiti.
But back in the early 20th century, a particular form of graffiti—often referred to as ‘hobo graffiti’—emerged. The execution was much less flashy than the graffiti of today, done with grease pencils rather than spray paint. And it was part of a highly developed communication system among the ‘hobo’ community. (This term was widely used by wanderers at the time to describe their own community, and is used here to reflect the anthropological study of that community’s history during this time period. “Homeless” or “nomadic” are terms we would use today.)
Traces of hobo graffiti from the early 20th century have become almost totally obliterated, destroyed by natural forces, torn down along with old buildings, or painted over with new graffiti. So when anthropologist Susan Phillips came across a rare one scribbled underneath a bridge near the Los Angeles River, she knew it was a remarkable discovery.
In 2000, Phillips, an environmental analysis professor at Pitzer College, was searching for traces of old graffiti with a group of friends when they stumbled upon a nearly century-old collection of scribbles. Written on the walls of the bridge were roughly 20 names, accompanied by dates indicating that the markings were made as far back as 1914.
“It was one of those few times when you’re actually looking for something and you find it,” Phillips tells CityLab. She’s been studying the history of L.A.’s graffiti for an upcoming book. “Being able to look at this wall that was still intact and completely untouched by any contemporary graffiti, it was absolutely remarkable that it survived.”
She’s been able to document a handful of examples of hobo graffiti from the past century—at least one from every decade beginning in the 1910s. Phillips considers that earliest era to be the “turn-of-the-century for hoboing.”
At that time, hobos—displaced people who traveled from city to city looking for jobs—used graffiti to let each other know about their whereabouts, sometimes in the hope of meeting up. The writings were markers: Wanderers wrote down their names, or their nicknames, followed by the date. They would then draw an arrow through their names, the tip pointing in the direction they were headed.
Phillips points to Leon Ray Livingston, who might be considered America’s most famous hobo, and whose moniker, A-No.1, stood out in the collection of graffiti she found near the L.A. River. Livingston is well known for documenting his adventures in more than a dozen books. One story, Phillips says, recounts how he tracked the location of a young boy by simply following his graffiti trail. (Livingston was also credited for developing the hobo symbol system, though Phillips says researchers have yet to document with any first-hand accounts that such a system was used.)
“These communities were fractured in some ways because they were constantly getting put in jail by authorities. People would be hopping onto trains, maybe they would get in trouble,” Phillips says. “It was hard to have seamless [travel between] point A to point B.”
The term “hobo” is now outdated, but a century ago it was used to describe a specific lifestyle that flourished shortly after the Civil War. “You had the expansion of railroad tracks throughout the war, and things were changing at the time, such as the heightened industrialization.” Phillips says. “So there was a whole generation of folks who were displaced and began just wandering.” They lived under bridges and in flop houses. The L.A. River was a popular settlement, with hundreds of hobo camps from the late 19th century into the 20th.
But these wanderers weren’t always a welcome sight. Clippings of old newspapers that Phillips found in her research show a great deal of paranoia in popular media. Hobos were called the “white peril,” and people were panicked about “dangerous men who don’t have ties to families coming into town,” she says, adding that there was also the underlying fear of homosexuality manifesting within the hobo community.
Though they lived on the fringes of society, it’s worth studying their traditions, particularly at a time when the L.A. River is expected to undergo major revitalization changes. There’s a case to be made for preserving the century-old graffiti found there.
“What you get is a history of marginal people who aren't usually included in the historical records,” Phillips says. “It expands our understand of the world and of inequality.”