Note: A previous iteration of this interview was published on the blog site, East City Art (www.eastcityart.com).
I met with Washington DC-based aerosol artist Tim Conlon at his Petworth studio and home on Tuesday, June 15, 2010. We spent about an hour talking about his work and the history of graffiti in art and in our culture in preparation for the opening of his show, “Derailed” at Studio H, Saturday, June 19, 2010. The interview transcript has been edited to improve brevity and clarity.
Close-up of collector's HO-scale model train with "CON" graffiti by Tim Conlon from a series produced by Maisto Toys.
W(ade): There are several different things that I think I can ask inside the house but let me just ask a couple of things about what you work with here in the studio. Do you use aerosol exclusively in the work you’re doing now? Have you changed at all since you started?
T(im): No. At least for the series, when I’m doing the train canvases, 98% is spray paint. I use some paint markers and then I sometimes use some acrylic washes but mostly I use spray paint.
W: What is a paint marker?
T: I do have some out here. They’re these oil-based paint markers.
W: More a pen than a spray. You’re putting pen marks on the surface.
W: Is it after or before you’ve gone to the aerosol?
T: It’s a mixture of both. When I do the train canvases, there are a lot of layers of spray paint. I just start off with a base coat, misting it back and forth, wiping it.
W: You’ve worked on plywood but this is canvas. Have you changed to canvas because you’re working more as a fine artist? Is there any specific advantage to canvas?
T: I haven’t found a difference between board and canvas. Actually, I got these large canvases from a friend of mine, he was getting rid of a bunch, he was switching to all board stuff.
W: There you go, you get some for free! They are lighter. For your work I don’t know why canvas would be better.
T: Yeah, they both work well. I’ve noticed sometimes when doing the train stuff, sometimes the canvas has a better texture than a straight board but a board reacts more with the paint as if I were painting on a metal train just because it’s smooth.
W: Have you ever thought about painting on aluminum or steel?
T: I have. I’ve talked to my friend Billy Colbert about aluminum. He uses it.
W (laughing): You could get aluminum in Baltimore pretty easily.
T: That’s exactly where he gets his aluminum. That is what I think I’m going to try next because as far as painting trains that’s what I want.
W: It seems like the perfect medium for doing the your kind of aerosol work.
W: Let me see if there’s anything else I need to ask about while we’re out here in the studio.
T: The spray paint, in particular. I use a European spray paint instead of regular Rustoleum. I do have regular American paint but the reason I use the European paint is because of the color range and also this “94” paint has a matte finish and also it is low-pressure. If I’m painting, I can really produce a fine spray.
W: So low pressure has to do with the amount of aerosol that’s in the can?
T: Right. It’s the amount of pressure that’s in the can. So I can get really fine clean lines.
W: So you are not getting a spatter effect. It’s more like airbrushing.
W: Is it wrong to think of aerosol painting as airbrushing writ large? At least in the beginning when you’re working with—you mentioned Rustoleum. When a person starts putting paint on trains, one would have to work fast and would to use what one could afford. Presumably that means that you go to the hardware store and you buy whatever you can find in the colors you find the most attractive.
T: It used to be like that but not any more. Now you can go online and order any of this paint. Actually, I can get this European paint at Utrecht or Plaza. A couple years ago, you’d have to special order it. Now some of the hardware stores are starting to carry it, like Ace Hardware. You used to be limited in your color palette and the cans you were using. The cans didn’t have the technology built in. This “94” paint is made by graffiti writers in Spain so they know the nozzle systems. All the caps can give a different effect. That might be similar to airbrushing but I’m not familiar with it, really.
W: It’s the same idea. You have a wider or narrower range of tips. In fact, computers borrowed from airbrushing for some of the tools used with the mouse. Clicking on a surface where you’re actually using the mouse sort of mimics the use of a spray nozzle. There are two different parts to my understanding of the work that you do. One is the work itself and the other is the sharing of information and culture and technique within the community. You mentioned the Internet. Has that changed how you approach what the community is? Did it used to be something that was entirely visual? Were you pretty savvy to the Internet in the beginning of your activity—when you first went out to the train yards?
T: I started in 1993 when I was in college in Baltimore. I was studying digital imaging so I was familiar with computers and the Internet was becoming more main stream. Early on, there were some graffiti message boards that were popping up where people were interacting. You couldn’t really trade pictures at the time, it was really too slow to upload photos but we were able network and I could contact somebody out in, say, Texas or something like that, and get their information. First, it was only talk on the Internet but then somebody would take pictures of trains that I had painted in Baltimore that made it out their way. I would take pictures of what made it to the East Coast. We were communicating through the internet but the technology wasn’t there to actually share photos. It was more like a pen pal system. Then I would say around 1995-1996 Web sites started popping up with photos. It became more instantaneous. After that the people I was communicating with around the country were sending pictures back and forth. We were building our own Websites, posting and stuff like that.
W: Do you think of the community as existing in your mind before the Internet? You came to it at a time when there was already a graffiti culture. There was a visual set of images that excited you and you wanted to participate. My assumption is that the earlier communities didn’t base themselves on the Internet. Each community did what it did by itself. I guess you could say that it was like the old culture of hobo signs where they leave marks for other hobos to see. There is a specific set of ideograms or symbols that are understood by the hobos but that are obscure to the main stream . Is there something of that in the way that trains were painted or marked by different people? Did they discover each other slowly? Was writing always individualistic in your mind? Obviously, there was an “Adam.” There was a “Tagger Number One.” But after that, it grew…
T: I would say that when I started painting graffiti in ’93, that was when graffiti on freight trains was really starting to hit. Before that it was on city walls and just in local areas. Some of the older New York writers were painting walls or on train lines. Then there would be a freight train. It was like, “Let’s just paint this, too.” Then that train car got shipped off and somebody saw it and from the early 80s it started to bubble up. I would say that it was the early 90s when this really hit the main stream when people realized, “If I paint something here, it’s going to travel all the way over to Los Angeles next week, and then that same train will travel to Nebraska.” When I first started painting there were a lot of graffiti magazines out, as well. You’d go to Tower Records and you’d see what each city was doing and what their style was. Where there were trains, you could see it right there in front of you. You could say, “OK, this style is a Baltimore style or this style is from Los Angeles or Phoenix, or whatever.” With the freight trains right there, you wouldn’t have to wait for a new magazine to be published. You could go right to the train yard and see all kinds of different styles. People would write the city where they were from originally on the trains because a lot of them were completely blank at the time I started. They were like hobo monikers. There were really only a few tags and really nothing else. Now the trains are completely covered, if I tried to go paint a train now it would be impossible to find a train without some graffiti on it. Back then when we were just starting, we were just learning what the different cars were, like where Canadian National cars might travel. We actually did a lot of research, trying to figure out, “OK, if I paint this car, what kinds of cities is it going to travel to.”
W: So, it was not just painting. It was also a kind of geographic pinball.
T: Exactly. We did the research. We followed CSX, which is one of the major freight companies on the east coast. They had a tracking system online. It was all automated. You could put in the call numbers. It would be like “Canadian National, 258, 257.” You’d type that in and it would say, OK, this train is in Baltimore, Maryland, departing for St. Louis, Missouri, on such and such a date. So you knew that train would be leaving in, say, three days. You could contact your friends in St. Louis and tell them which train was going to be coming into their yard. You could ask them to get a picture of it. I had to paint at night and never got to see it. So the friend in St. Louis takes the picture and then mails it to me. As the Internet progressed your photograph could get posted online. There was a lot of research going into knowing where these trains were traveling, what kinds of cars were good to paint, what not to paint. Like doing research into hobo markings, a lot of us are really into trains. We would be trying to figure out what the markings meant and then doing research that way. You also could go to train yards and you might run into some of these hobos and get a little information from them. Maybe they might tell you about another good spot to paint thirty miles away. There might be this little freight yard that they would use to jump on this train because they were trying to travel south. They would say it is really quiet there. You could probably go try to paint there. Stuff like that.
W: Let’s go in the house.
W: We’re starting up again. Now that we’re in the house I have a question for you about timing. You mentioned that you were working in the field and that you had clues. Folks gave you tips on the best places to get at the trains. Your chief concern when working in the field would have been a technique that was speed y. You wanted to be able to do the work fast and you wanted to be able to get out. Obviously, there are two things going on. The trains were moving and you also had to deal with security personnel. How does the lack or the loss of this need for speed affect the work that you do now? You don’t have to rush anymore. Think about it for a second or tell me if there’s a change in the way you have done things. Has it affected your technique?
T: Not necessarily. I’d say I strived to find spots that were decent so that we could safely paint and not have to worry about getting in trouble, getting caught, or having trains that were really active. We wanted to have enough time to really paint. Especially early on there weren’t a lot of people running around in the train yards causing any issues. I’ve been painting trains for about 17 years. After a while, just doing it again and again and again, I think of the repetition. Just being in those spots when all your senses were firing because it was dark and you were listening for everything and you were watching everything meant that you were really not trying to rush through it. You were trying to take your time and trying to focus. At least for me it would be almost Zen-like. I would almost be painting and thinking of something else and not even really focusing on what I was doing just because I was so “in the zone.” That was true unless I was traveling somewhere and I wasn’t familiar with that spot. If I was meeting friends in another city and painting in their spots, then I would have to go back to being on point, knowing what’s going on and having to kind of rush through it. Otherwise, when I was painting in spots here where I grew up it was almost the same as painting back there in my studio. The only difference now is that I don’t have to worry about the train pulling out. A lot of times I was almost all the way through a piece and then, boom, there goes the train. So that is the only real difference now, I would say.
W: They never move on you now.
T: Yeah. Exactly.
W: Can you think of any other ways in which your technique has changed? We talked a little bit about the paint– that you’ve been able to use better paints, colors and aerosols to do the work more accurately or with a technique that more suits your taste. Has there been anything else going on that has changed as you moved through these years?
T: You know I try constantly to work in different styles. Otherwise I am painting just the same outline and shape again and again and just changing the colors. It’s pretty boring. So I’ll definitely be trying new outlines, new letters. I work with a lot of my close friends in different cities trading sketches, essentially. They’ll do my painting and I’ll do theirs. It would give a fresh perspective on. Perhaps this person bends the letter “C” this other way. I can take that sketch and then appropriate it into something I’m already doing or something else, something new I want to try. As far as can control and technique, I mean, that’s just something you have to develop over years of painting. But with the advent of this European paint and all the different caps it’s not like how we used to have to research all this stuff. When we started, we had to go out and experiment by taking the caps off different products like oven cleaner and stuff like that.
W: Just to try and figure out your own brush style.
T: Yes, exactly. Now you can go online. Sometimes I joke about it. You can get a whole graffiti writer package online. Still, doing that and having all those tools helps but just the experience of painting is really going to hone your skills and make you a greater graffiti writer or artist. As far as the stuff I’m doing on canvas now, I am trying to use some of the techniques I’ve learned from painting like shading and color, using some color theory and applying it to canvas work. I’m trying to do all the canvasses completely in aerosol even though I could do it all in acrylic, as well. Because I am coming to the art world from the graffiti side of things I’ll keep those techniques that I’ve learned and use them to link to something new without strictly doing just more graffiti. I’m doing graffiti on the (faux painted) trains, then doing model trains and doing a kind of a reverse graffiti. I’m painting what I consider blank canvasses—completely “clean” rusty trains which are the preferable “canvas” out in the field. Even though they are painted trains, for me they are blank canvases.
W: Do the freight companies have any desire to clean up their trains? Or do they just repaint them when they move them or buy them?
L: A lot of companies have consolidated. When I started, there were a lot of short lines still running. Now they’re consolidated into CSX.
W: It is interesting how your work has changed, or not changed so much, but the observation of what you’ve done has paralleled the consolidation of the train lines.
L: Right. That’s why, as graffiti writers, we were searching for those special short lines that were bought by CSX. All they were doing was re-stamping old cars—Chessie System cars. Finding old Chessie System cars with the cat logo, being able to paint on them, and to get a picture of that for the collection. Graffiti writers are some of the biggest collectors that I know. They were wanting constantly to paint that piece, get that spot, get a picture of it, and add it to the collection. It was the same with train traffic. If you could find these rare short lines or refrigerated cars or even the Tropicana Train which runs, You know, it is hard to catch!
W: Yes, I suppose it does spend the night somewhere but it doesn’t spend the night in Baltimore!
T: Right, but sometimes it had to stop on the tracks and there’s that lucky moment when you can get at it. Seeing the train lines consolidated, I’ve gotten mixed reactions from both workers and the police and I think some people talked to train company personnel. Some people don’t care, they’re like OK, well, you have this rusty car and this kid who’s putting a fresh coat of paint on it. A lot of workers I’ve talked to—some of them love it, some of them hate it. Because sometimes you’ve put paint over some of the call numbers, it just makes their job harder. Plus, they don’t like a bunch of random people running around in some of the yards.
W: Who could get their legs chewed up or something.
T: Exactly. You know you have kids that just go in there and have no concept of safety or knowing how to get the spot, especially at night. And then you could have accidents and people get killed. I’ve talked to some workers who liked the idea that people are in the yards and watching out. After 9/11 there was the whole thing with security. We used to have all the great train yards here in Alexandria where we could paint. They just re-routed a bunch of the traffic because of concerns about people putting something in the freight cars that would detonate, or whatever, so it’s almost like some of the workers I’ve talked to thought it was like added security. They thought, “You’re just in there to go do your thing, and you want to get in and get out and be quiet. But you are watching everything and so if something’s going on, well, you’ll know about it.” It is weird how there are so many different reactions to it. Then there were workers who were doing it on their own. They had their own little streaks and markers and had done stuff with aerosol cans, as well.
W: Really? That is something you don’t know about. Do you cut your own stencils or do you buy them? How do you duplicate the numbers?
T: Since most of the lettering is straight Helvetica or something like that I can buy and use stencils. Sometimes I’ll use them as a base and then tape stuff off to mimic the shapes of whatever I need. I can just use simple straight stencils or use them to paint markers.
W: We’ve talked before about the fact that the work that you do isn’t just about the canvas—or just about the finished product. When you move into the realm of fine art, or even graphic arts, what part of your work do you think you can move into the studio, and then into the gallery, that is not just the artifact, not just the actual finished painted product. Would you like to see the concept of the community, the concept of your experience be a part of the work that you do? When you are painting, say, for this upcoming gallery show, in some cases, you’re doing, relatively to scale what you would have done in a train yard.
W: Apart from that, in the gallery shows that you do, there are other parts. There are train models and there are photographs, if I understand it correctly.
W: Is there a narrative that you’re trying to let people know about other than just what you finished painting?
T: Yes. I think I’m focusing on that now. In the last show that I did over at The Fridge a couple months ago, I put graffiti over to the side. I was working with my friend Mark Jenkins and there were some graffiti-type elements but we were trying other stuff like sculpture and just taking a break. But then I was thinking that I really wanted to come back to doing graffiti-type stuff and really wanted to focus on trains. That was such an important part of me developing as an artist. I think that story and experience is very important in my paintings and I guess just in the work itself. I think right now I am trying to figure out a way to put that whole story together. I am going to have the small models showing what a piece would be like. Then I have the larger panels actually like a rusty train. I’m also going to have photographs to see what the actual trains look like with the graffiti. I’ve done studies just of the rust and other stuff that interests me apart from painting the actual graffiti. I think it was my first step in figuring out how to incorporate everything and what you’re saying, too, to incorporate more of the community of graffiti writers. Actually, that was a part of the show I wanted to do but didn’t include. I have kept a bunch of the old letters and stuff.
W: Right, that’s what I’m driving at.
T: That would be the next phase. I did some shows, two years ago at the Smithsonian where I did the model trains. I had three other friends come do it with me. There was a kind of a community-type thing going where you would see the different styles. That was the first part of seeing how it could work—seeing it on model trains and peoples reaction to it. Everybody loved it.
W: So, you came up with the idea of doing the miniature versions of train tagging.
T: I’m sure other people were thinking of it at the same time.
W: Yes but that was not an idea that was given to you. It’s interesting because it is like working backwards. Most people start, like architects, with models. They can’t do the finished product because they can’t afford it. They start with models and then they have their plan and then they blow it up and do it in real life. You’re doing it in the reverse. You’re basically saying, “I’m going to reduce it down.” It becomes an artifact that’s easier to move around. It’s easier to touch and exchange and it’s almost a teaching tool. A part of my question about creating a narrative in your gallery work is what I have sensed from everything the way you’ve worked so far. There is an element of teaching in everything that you do. You are trying to teach the world about this experience you’ve had, what this world of people you’ve been a part of is, and so forth. A thought just occurred to me a second ago as you were talking. Have you seen the (Smithsonian) American Art Museum Christo and Jeanne-Claude show about “The Running Fence,” which was back in 1976? I would love for you to go see it because it’s about documentation. The finished product is the entire experience. They saved everything, pictures, snapshots. Everything then is what is sold ultimately to a museum. That’s what I was trying to say in my earlier question. Is that what you’re driving at or is it just the pictures that you care most about, the finished painted products?
T: It’s hard to say. There are a couple of things there. Sometimes when I go to paint, I’m not out to really paint for a finished product. It’s really just for me to kind of go out and skate and just paint and go off into a Zen-like thing. It’s a weird experience. I’ve talked to a whole bunch of my friends who feel the same thing. You forget about everything that’s going on in life and you are taking a step back, even though you’re inside this crazy experience. It is at night, you are in a bad neighborhood. You have police around, whatever. The train is moving. And you are there and you are focused and you are painting and just having that whole adrenaline rush going on at the same time. Coming away from that, I’ll have this piece and that’s great, but also I’m clear headed. It’s almost like a side product of what I’m doing. I really didn’t know what to expect. I just threw a bunch of colors my bag and hoped to see what happened. And then taking a picture and coming home, looking at it later, I could say, “Oh, yeah, this is great,” and I could show it to people and they would think it’s great. They would say, “This is awesome. I wish I could take a chunk of this home.” For a while we put a bunch of canvases on the wall and painted over top of them. Then people could take small chunks, or whatever. I think that is part of what you were saying. I want to preserve graffiti, for people to enjoy, and to have something that people realize necessarily is interesting. There is artistic merit to it. But also, going back to what you were saying about community, I think one of the things I have noticed is that graffiti artists are huge collectors. You have to get a picture of every piece because graffiti is not permanent. The elements are beating down, the city is coming to paint over it—or the train company. You then have people running around who are going to scribble on it. There is real merit to having something to preserve. Some in the graffiti community, the writers and collectors, are taking photos, wanting to catch certain trains. Then there are art collectors who want to go out and collect certain graffiti writers. That’s been going on since the early 1980s, when some of the early writers came up. Then you have train collectors. That is another big thing. The model railroad guys do intricate, super-detailed train sets and they want to have the graffiti on the trains. I think that’s where the idea initially came from to do graffiti on model trains—and seeing some guy trying to mimic something and taking a photograph, trying to copy it. Somebody was that into it and started doing it. We did our Smithsonian show and we went online. We showed our model trains and people were just going crazy. You had these guys who were interested in the graffiti art just for preserving the realistic sense of what trains look like out in the world. Art collectors might want a piece because they value what it looks like. Graffiti artists are just interested in getting these certain train cars involved. We’ve run into a lot of guys involved in a thing we call “benching” which is a term from the 80s. They would sit on benches in Harlem or the Bronx and watch the subway trains go by and take photos. We would get off at different spots and just try and catch our trains. And you would have other older retired railroad workers who would have their scanners and they’d be listening. They were just trying to catch a picture of a certain car just like we wanted to catch our painted ones.
W: They were just train spotters.
T: Yes, exactly. I have noticed these different pockets of community that all are interested in graffiti, except for different reasons. I think it’s pretty fascinating. That is why I’m making photos to document the actual trains that I’ve done. I know that each of these touch different people in the larger graffiti trains community.
W: Are any model train companies faking them, producing them from images and then stamping them with decals?
T: Yes. Lionel, I think it was in ’92 or ’93, I found that they did a run of two or three different cars. But then I think there was a little bit of a blow-back from the train collecting community, “Let’s not promote it.”
W: Because it was graffiti. Because it was vandalism.
T: Here, I’ll show you. I have an actual train from Maisto.
W: Oh, right! This is an example of exactly what I was asking about.
T: There was a history of freight train graffiti book that Roger Gastman put out, I think it was in 2006. He partnered Maisto to put it out. I think they were going to do two series of six trains cars with graffiti on them. In their initial launch, they were selling them at Walmart for a while. Then there was a big uproar about selling toys with graffiti on them, that it was promoting graffiti. So I think they dropped the contract with Maisto, but also, Maisto had put the B&O logo on these trains and they didn’t have clearance to do it.
W: Right. That’s a different issue.
T: So they had to pull all the trains and take the little B&O logo off. Then, I think, Urban Outfitters was selling them for a while and they didn’t even go to the second series. There were only six trains, six different artists that were put on these little boxcar train models.
W: So, how did they contact you or did you guys have anything to do with it?
T: Yes, I knew Roger and we were all kind of friends and all networked. The guys were from all over the country.
W: I see here that they were profiling you guys on the back of each cartons. They were giving you some respect.
T: Again, because this came out in conjunction with the freight train graffiti book. We had a lot of stuff written in the book.
W: Is this going to be in the show? Will you have little trains personally that you’ve done?
T: Yes. There are larger “G-Scale” trains that I have done. These smaller ones are too difficult to paint.
W: That’s my next question. How do you do it? I mean what do you use to make such a fine image?
T: When I’ve done the HO scale, I don’t know about all of them, but I’ve used the oil-based markers. There are three different tips, a broad tip, a medium tip and a real super fine tip. It takes forever, especially to do the small trains. I took a step back and decided that I would do the G-Scale trains even though most train collectors don’t have a G-Scale setup. It was much easier to paint on that size and for collectors it was a bigger piece and those were what they were more interested in. So, for those larger trains I realized after a while that I was doing the whole thing with just the oil-based paint markers. I realized that I could do a mixture of spray paint and paint marker. That’s what I have in the show on Saturday. I think I’ll have seven of the different larger trains.
W: When you are painting a train to some extent one of the factors in what ends up on the train is how tall you are, isn’t it, or how wide your reach is? How do you move around the image when you are working on a large scale piece the size of the wall of a freight train?
T: Most of the graffiti pieces will be based on the standard height the train stands off the ground. Again, that’s why you would want certain cars, completely flat-sided cars, with others you’ll have hard ridges and you will be trying to reach up high. Sometimes you can get up to a spot where the ground is completely flat. The size of that piece is up to as tall as you can reach. Other times, there are places that might have a loading dock so that you are right up to the bottom of the door. Then you have all that room to paint. Most of the time you’re still painting while standing on gravel on a slight grade so most pieces are only as high a person can reach. Some people are trying to do a whole car so they’ll bring a ladder to their spot.
W: That’s pretty complicated.
W: When you were first creating your initial tag, did you create “CON” first on a wall or did you start actually writing “CON” on trains?
T: Let’s see. When I started out in 1993 I was with two other friends I met back in college. I worked a lot with them. Both of them were from the Baltimore area or from Hagerstown. They both skated and we would travel around Baltimore to check out these different abandoned spots, warehouses, whatever. Baltimore has a pretty old graffiti history. It’s probably right up there with New York and Philadelphia. In fact, one of New York’s writers from the early 80s subway art era came down to Baltimore in school at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art ) and started a whole graffiti scene. You had tons and tons of graffiti all around and a lot of it was preserved. There was a small vacuum that same time in ’93 when we started as far as the older graffiti writers. They had just stopped writing or had moved on, moved out of the city. So we were just kind of, you know, just going around to these skate spots and there was this vacuum. I was thinking, “What is this stuff?” Visually, I couldn’t understand any of it. It wasn’t like any language. I would look at it and kind of read it and realize that was a “C” and that’s whatever. I was intrigued that way. And then eventually just being out and checking it again and then thinking, “Well, let’s just give it a shot,” since I’d always been interested in art and drawings and stuff like that so you know I came to it pretty much from being out, looking at it and then just practicing and Baltimore being a huge port city you’ve got train yards everywhere. And back then there was a lot of freight traffic in Baltimore. So we had some really big freight yards stationed in certain neighborhoods. Some were close to where our school was and we could just walk in and paint on whatever we wanted to. When we started we met this other guy from Baltimore, his name was ECO, and he was one of the older school Baltimore writers. He knew this guy, JACE, who had moved from Baltimore to the West Coast, to San Francisco. So he had been back and was visiting and he was telling us about painting on trains, and that we should check it out. So that was right when I started to paint on trains. And I thought, “Cool, I can practice on this and it will look like crap but then it’s out of here.”
W: OK, so that was your practice. You weren’t using sketch pads or …
T: Oh, we were still sketching.
W: Did you start creating your personal image at that micro-level? In other words, did you start in sketch pads with pencil or ink in understandable lettering. Did you create the lettering style before you hit the spray cans?
T: Actually, I did not paint any letter graffiti pieces for probably two or three years into my graffiti career. I used to do characters. I had two friends who were more focused on doing letters and doing pieces. I wasn’t really comfortable with that until I got more of my can control down.
W: Is there any other way other than writing on the side of a trains to get the can control?
T: Yes, walls or anything. It’s just a matter of going out and painting, knowing how much pressure to put on the cap while you’re moving. We were painting plenty of walls. But it was more about trains. I mean the graffiti community is pretty competitive. Try to go out and paint on a spot. If you put up something horrible, somebody better is going to come along and paint right over it. You start off as what they call a “toy.” You’re just getting started. You are going to make a mess. It’s going to look bad. At least for us it was like all right let’s just practice somewhere where nobody is going to see it. Trains obviously were perfect because they take off.
W: People didn’t value trains.
T: Exactly, it was just getting started and it wasn’t a big deal. But we were painting consistently enough and then learning about trains at the same time and seeing them all the time. It started to come together into something. We started to see trains coming back and then we thought, wow, this is really good just for taking a picture and then going back to trace some of where they are going. It was good and bad. We could take this conversation back to talking about effect of the Internet community. Originally, you would have one style per city. Baltimore had its own style. DC had its own style. Philadelphia was more focused on their hand style. Their graffiti tags were just a quick signature. Then you will have these very long, tall prints or you will have these really intricate long tags. They are almost impossible to read unless you are from Philly and know what it says. In Baltimore we had a left-handed style because there was this guy who wrote “ZEKE” who was left-handed. The way he wrote his tag would lean to the left. Just because he was this old-school guy, all the right handed people would mimic what he was doing and so all the Baltimore tags leaned to the left. Some of the pieces also would be fairly large and would have these long bars kind of pyramid style. I think the advent of the Internet demolished people practicing and learning the history of their own community and city. People started jumping on the Internet and grabbing whatever style they liked. You have these younger kids who haven’t learned their history. They just jump immediately on to whatever looks trendy. They don’t practice, or at least learn their history, before developing their own styles.
W: Some graffiti work looks like the complicated interweaving of Celtic cross designs and sailor’s rope braids or other things that exist in the culture already. Do you see that in the work on freight trains or even on walls? Are there other sources I am not hitting? Can you give me any idea of whether can see cultural sources in any of the work that is out there.
T: Yes, I am noticing that more so in the culture, although it constantly changes. Somebody will come up with something new and everybody kind of grasps on to that. I would say the focus right now is less on letters, which has been the most popular style, and more on the effects you can get with spray paint. There is a whole new line of transparent paint that has come on the market. You still have a pigment but you can spray over what you just did and get this tone. People are getting crazy effects with it, very painterly. It is out in left field compared to the traditional approach which is “let’s take a letter and change its shape or whatever.” I’ve also noticed a lot of graphic design in graffiti. There is more traditional font work with really straight, clean, readable graffiti and design. But then you still have people like myself who love the classic “Wild Style.” I’d say as far as trends go, that would be it, more special effects or graphic design. It’s what you see in basic MTV or commercial stuff. A lot of graffiti writers also have daytime jobs in graphic or Web design. There is a lot of crossover that you see as a result of that. I’ve met people who go off and do all kinds of crazy styles that focus on one particular theme like a Celtic knot. There is always some big trend that is going on. Right now, I’d say it is the design effects, less focused on letters. But there still is another group that is constantly focused on classic graffiti. Also, it is still kind of regional. I mean, even though the cities now have lost their own specific styles that developed for years and years, you can still find followers of a West Coast Style and there is still something on the East Coast. DC and Baltimore shared some of the same styles and a lot of this still stems from Philly and New York. Chicago has its own thing. All kinds of different stuff is still going on.
W: Do you see any dialog between the world of design in graffiti and the world of design in tattooing?
T: Yes, it is funny that you bring that up, too. I’ve also noticed a big trend of graffiti writers becoming tattoo artists and crossing back and forth, as well. Even with some friends I know. They get the style from “Sailor Jerry” [a.k.a. Norman Keith Collins, the tattooist, born January 14, 1911, died June 12, 1973]. Some of his style of tattoos, the old style with women and ships, I’ve seen a lot of that kind of line work crossing over. I think it is swinging both ways. You see print stuff or on Comedy Central. You see splats and arrows and that kind. It is definitely going both ways.
W: Can you think of anything else besides tattoo art where there also is bleeding over?
T: There is a lot in video games. You see now actual graffiti pieces being placed to make the scenes look more realistic in a fighting game or in a racing game. There is even a graffiti video game that came out a couple of years ago.
W: Where you can do your own graffiti?
T: Yes, where you can play these characters and you are running around and spray painting on trains. It came out for Xbox, and all that. It was this guy Marc Ecko who owns a big clothing line with graffiti-based stuff. I think he used New York graffiti and had different characters in the game.
W: Are there other artists besides Mark Jenkins that you would like to collaborate with?
T: Yeah, I think there are a lot. I really haven’t thought about it in a gallery sense yet. I mean Mark and I have been friends for a while and we had talked about doing a show together. He is constantly on the go and traveling. That is my main focus, collaboration. I mean, I like to paint by myself but I love to paint with other writers all the time.
W: You would have to. That is why you started doing it.
T: Right, and traveling and then learning other artists’ histories and what was going on in their cities. Painting with them and seeing their techniques and picking stuff up that way– that kind of collaboration is always important to me. I am thinking maybe that my next collaboration would be with my friend Billy Colbert here in Washington. I’ve been working with him on some design stuff. I think we are hoping to get a project with the city doing a mural in Anacostia. I think his print work and my graffiti stuff would work together.
W: How about the junction between graffiti artists and music? Is there anything that you think unites those two fields? You have said nothing about it so I assume that you never had your ears plugged into a Walkman or eventually an iPod or something else while you were painting. Is that ever a factor in the work that other people do, do you know?
T: Yes, I’ve seen it with plenty of other friends. I’ve seen friends, especially when they are painting a wall. Usually, when you are painting a train you want all your senses around you so that’s common but if you are out on the street a lot of people just put in earphones because they don’t want people walking up saying, “What is this all about? Blah, blah, blah…” They want to focus on what they are doing. For me, I love talking to people about it while I’m doing it. They’ll come up and they could tell me that it’s great or how they hate it.
W: Can you talk and paint at the same time or do you stop painting while you are talking?
T: I do a little bit of both. Originally, I hated it when people were watching me. It was just nerve wracking having people standing there and critiquing. Especially when you are doing a graffiti piece it’s not until the end when you put an outline on it that everything comes together. People will look at it and think, “What is this giant mess?” When I have had people sit and watch the whole process they’ve said things like, “Yeah, I thought this thing was going to be something different.”
W: It is the same process in other forms of art. You start with the base. You apply gesso or something like that. You decide on the color or colors that are going to be at the back. The same has to be true in the work you are doing in the studio. But if I heard correctly, one of the things that you have to do is to create a painted train as a background because you want to preserve some sense that you are really painting on a train. You paint a train and then you paint a piece of work on top of the train. Is that a way you like to work? Is that something that gives you a feeling that you are really creating what you used to create because it is a documentation of a style?
T: Actually, that is true for the main piece that I am doing for the show. It is like the painting you saw here in the studio. It is a piece on the “train.” A lot of times I actually like painting the train without the graffiti on it.
W: Oh, really?
T: I am really just focused on what I would witness a train yard being up close to trains—rust, decay, deterioration.
W: Painting that as well as taking pictures of it?
T: Yes. That is a new focus. I am focusing on the original “canvas” instead of just painting on top of it. If I am doing that I might as well just go out and do it for real. I would rather see if I can create something that feels as if I was standing right in front of a train. Especially for me it goes back to when I first started writing and we had what we called—the term wouldn’t be correct in the technical sense—a “clean” train. There was nothing on it. You would walk down the line and it was this perfect line of yellow, blue, green. And now it is just covered. It is kind of funny being a graffiti writer that I would wish that there wasn’t all this graffiti on this train.
W: It makes perfect sense to me. Maybe it has to do with your roots or your initial inspiration. You are looking at something else, not whether it is clean or dirty.