The press release read “Enigmatic Artist Resurfaces With Images Documenting A Year Train Hopping Across the Continent on the North American Criminal Roller Coaster”. My attention was hooked, and I was further reeled in by Swampy’s capture of the world as seen atop a train. Swampy, who hails from Oakland, CA, is indeed an enigmatic artist. He has no website, no bio, and no paper trail, which may stem from his work as a graffiti artist, but he does have a new exhibition at the Chandran Gallery in San Francisco which runs through August 8th, 2015. His solo exhibition is also accompanied by a book release and a screening of Swampy’s video diary on his summer travels.
Swampy is an elusive artist with a preference for anonymity. Even so, he has developed a cult following that is fascinated by his multidimensional work as much as by his enigmatic identity. “I like disappearing”, a phrase often peppering his work, is a regular practice for the artist. Following Swampy’s 2011 sold-out debut solo show at FIFTY24SF Gallery, the artist vanished off the grid. In his sporadic resurfacings, the artist has collaborated with Paper Monster and has been featured in The New York Times T Magazine, Complex, Juxtapoz and The San Francisco Chronicle.
I made these photographs on a trip across North America from Mexico to Alaska during the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011. Most of the distance was traveled by freight train, some by highway and four days by barge. I became fascinated by freight travel while exploring the U.S. as a teenager. The allure of traveling by train initially came from the absence of a price tag, but the sense of solitude that I discovered once I started riding is why I continue a decade later. The railway strikes out a different path across the landscape than roads and highways, and there is a calm to the environment surrounding the tracks. As an alternate passageway, it lacks the stress of being corralled by commerce and advertisements like on the streets and highways where capitalism anticipates people will accumulate. The railroad is, in fact, the physical manifestation of capitalism and the circulation of goods, but when sneaking a ride you find yourself holding on to the back of the beast where it can’t see you. Watching product get picked up in one city and delivered in another, unbeknownst to the ones behind the wheel, the train rider is delivered along with it.
In contrast, riding trains in Mexico is a group experience. You sometimes share the top of a railcar with 10 or more strangers, riding through desert, jungle, and city centers. In the larger train yards security guards use flashlights to direct riders to the best spot to bed for the night and in the morning business-minded individuals walk around selling rolled tacos to all of the trespassers before they board their next train. It seems like even today in the U.S., train riding is imagined as a kind of communal hobo adventure, but in reality most riders know to keep a very low profile due to the heightened security of the U.S. transportation system. Only in Mexico have I experienced what this mythos of train riding is imagined to be. Riding through a small village in Las Huastecas kids played baseball on a trackside field. The batter hit a pop fly in the direction of the train and I dramatically pretended to catch the ball. The kids below all stopped playing and began laughing, yelling and pointing at me and the other riders on top of the passing train before pretending to lob another ball in our direction. I swung my imaginary bat and didn’t really care if I ever rode another train again. It is still one of my fondest memories of riding the rails.
On the first train I hopped back in the States after crossing the border, I found myself alone again hiding above the greasy axle of a truck trailer. Wishing I was back in Mexico, I crawled even deeper into the gears and cables to get out of sight until I made it back to the Bay Area. I spent the winter in the port city of Oakland, California living in abandoned and foreclosed houses. During this time I made a small effort to document some of the things I appreciate about California and how it has shaped and sustained me. I was born in California and have called Oakland my home for most of my adult life. Being a port city means it thrives on the railroad and transportation industry and like many other railroad towns it historically has a rich train riding culture. Much like how people cling to the coasts for fear of feeling landlocked, riders naturally stick to railroad towns. Both inclinations resonate with me as a train hopper born and raised on the California coast.
It is tradition to leave your mark in hobo jungles or, more historically, on water tanks when traveling by freight. A classic way to accent your moniker is to mark the direction you’re headed, such as EBD for eastbound or B.W. for bound west. I peppered the catch-out spots of the west coast with “NBD” tags that summer. Switching from one short line to another, I crawled up the foggy coast of British Columbia. Sleeping in the bottom of wet, rusty wood chip cars most nights and at other times in the mud slowly chipped away my morale. Getting dropped in a tiny trackside town along the way made a bad situation worse. Every low moment in the mud, however, was pardoned by excitement on the open water as the barge made it’s way across the Gulf.
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