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MOSTLY TRUE: THE WEST’S MOST POPULAR HOBO GRAFFITI MAGAZINE by Bill Daniel

www.microcosmpublishing.com

$9.95

This is a great project from filmmaker Bill Daniel about hobo railway graffiti, attempting to dissect its status as either visual pollution or little understood art form. The subsequent journey through underground railroad monikers and catalogued “captures” on film postulates strong evidence for the latter. Mostly True is done in a faux period magazine style, complete with faux ads (though some real establishments do sneak in, for places like Secret Headquarters and 1984 Printing). There’s effective time spent establishing the faux periodical cred of a lost era with lines like “what you have here, dear beatnik…” so that Daniel can dive right into the nomenclature and tags as contemporary art exploration. I particularly enjoyed how Daniel positions railway graffiti as sort of the opposite of branded media saturation and chronicles the form, from decidedly low-fi chalk and paint stick origins, up through the rise of the “aerosol assault,” as those responsible transitioned from being largely rail employees who respected the culture and function to mindless taggers. Boxcar art is also positioned as a form of rudimentary social networking that traversed the nation, which is about the point you begin to think of the project in social anthropology terms. In short, this is a cultural anthropologist’s delight. The world we’re allowed a glimpse of is a subculture complete with its own language and social mores. You can learn if someone’s an “oogle” or a “Flintstone,” about the “hard riders” and the “shovelheads,” and enjoy eclectic euphemisms like “caught the westbound” when someone passes on. The style of writing and types of entries included jumps around wildly; some are utterly engaging and some just… aren’t. But overall, I enjoyed the caustic funny stories, profile pieces, and interviews, such as the story of Milenko’s journey from San Diego to Texas, the little ditty about how “The Commodore” got his name, Colossus of Roads (who cites Robert Crumb, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut as some of the most important writers), and of course Daniel’s attempts to track down the identity of “Bozo Texino.” Using some good old fashioned investigative journalism, the identity(ies) of those responsible for this ubiquitous “Killroy Was Here” style tag are uncovered. It was not uncommon for some of these artists to accumulate 60,000 tags over a 25 year period. At the end of it all, you realize that this seldom seen slice of Americana has more in common with the legitimate street art scene than any random petulant teenage graffiti. As time goes on, especially with other works like the recent Unsinkable, I’m beginning to shift my own perception and think of Microcosm Publishing as less of a mini-comics house and more of a documentarian of important cultural phenomenon. Grade A-.

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