How transient workers in industrial America used graffiti to navigate public spaces
More than a half century before Jack Kerouac took to the road and inspired the Great American Counter Culture, an American counterculture existed on the road. Like the Beat Generation, this was a culture of mostly transient men, travelling America. Few of them ever wrote books about their exploits, but almost all of them wrote. The trails of letters and symbols they left behind were lifelines in their own community. Some remain to this day. They tell the stories of individuals on the outskirts of a society in transition.
The postbellum transformation of the United States that brought about the typewriter and studded the American urban landscape with great factories fundamentally changed the way Americans worked. Demand for labour in factories wasn’t constant, and work could be dangerous and poorly paid. Workers unionized to protect themselves and support each other, but that couldn’t change the reality of the job market. Factories needed a flexible work force; unemployed workers had to travel to find work.
Railways had recently made travel easier than ever before. People with money could ride in a train carriage to the next city—or all the way across the country. But unemployed workers couldn’t afford that luxury. They had to travel on foot, hitch rides on carts, or stowaway on freight trains. At some point, these people acquired a name: hobos. The name likely came from California; its origin might have been Spanish. Or German. Colourful folk etymologies evoke everything from hobs to oboes, but the truth is, nobody knows why hobos were called hobos.
We do know that the word appeared in an 1884 Vaudeville play, the Goddess of Love. This featured a hobo who meets Aphrodite—an unemployed worker meeting a Greek goddess was apparently ripe ground for comedy. Two years later, the Iron Molder’s Journal of Cincinnati published a serialized story of a group of young men riding the trains around upstate New York, not only looking for work, but to avoid being coerced into work in a “rock pile” as punishment for vagrancy—a legal substitute for recently outlawed slavery. They never met any goddesses. Later that year, the journal posted a letter to the editor from an iron worker identifying himself as “Spud”. He understood the need for workers to go “on the hobo” from time to time, but resented those hobos who solicited donations from their union brothers, only to drink them away and move on. Hoboing had become a lifestyle.
There was a hierarchy to transients in late-19th century America: hobos were itinerant workers, tramps were vagrants who could be coerced into work, and bums avoided work at all costs. As the top of the class, the hobos produced some noteworthy figures. The most famous of them now is Jack London, the author of Whitefang, Call of the Wild, and a memoir about his time as a hobo, The Road. But in his day he was maybe the second most famous hobo. It wasn't even close.
Leon Ray Livingston, AKA The Rambler, AKA A-No1 was a hobo who learned the ways of the road from a Cajun tramp called Frenchy. Frenchy christened Livingston with the A-No1 moniker, and instructed him to carve it and the date in a post every mile he walked. The moniker itself was a hobo innovation—both the pseudonym and the act of writing the pseudonym, it was a clear precursor to the modern graffiti writer’s tag. And it was only part of a system of symbols hobos carved into their surroundings, to alert other hobos of their whereabouts and to dangers and aids in their surroundings.
This was critically important to hobos. Greater American culture at the end of the 19th century had entered a period of self-reflection. As scruffy vagrants, hobos were an easy target for persecution and were often characterized as criminals; police routinely cleared their camps and arrested them. But, as a culture outside of mainstream society, hobo culture implicitly offered an escape from persecution for those under a suddenly intense societal gaze. Hobodom included racially and sexually marginalized people; the road was their salvation or their demise. The shared language of hobo graffiti could mean the difference between a dry place to sleep or death. Some of their markings survive, scratched into concrete under bridges and in storm sewers. They indicate not only the camp sites of itinerant workers, but what passed for safe spaces for sexual minorities and political radicals. It’s poignant to see the hidden away vestiges of what couldn’t be, taken root in a bygone America’s interstices.
That was not the work Leon Ray Livingston, AKA the Rambler, AKA A-No.1. Livingston wasn’t carving controversy with the sharp edge of communism or forbidden love. But that doesn’t mean A-No.1, the moniker, wasn’t a profound piece of graffiti—his was an existential shout, permanence in the face of transience, an anonymous expression of ego. Livingston carved his moniker with a compulsion, creating A-No.1-shaped voids in solids everywhere the road took him—especially where people could see. This preoccupation peaked when he dug his moniker into the side of Yerba Buena Island, in San Francisco Bay. Every passing ship could see it. Soon after, a massive commercial advertisement took its place.
Livingston’s own work eventually turned commercial too—he founded his own publishing company and, like Jack London, committed his words to the page. He wrote twelve books about his travels around the United States and the world. The books consolidated the system of hobo literacy and preserved their secrets for posterity.
If he’d had his way, we’d still read A-No.1 on the surface of the moon. Instead, he got his way and we still read it in books. There’s an indelible power in that. As much as any surface is a writing surface, at the turn of the 20th century, letters lived primarily on the page. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t have any business written on the landscape. Some letters are too big to print; designing and painting them was an art in itself, with big commercial implications.