NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 17, Nos. 1-2, 1991
NIGHT TRAIN: THE POWER THAT MAN MADE
by Ivor Miller
Beginning in the late 1960s, there has grown in New York City a movement
of young painters, mostly male, who paint their works on the city’s
subways. They call themselves “painters,” “aerosol artists,” or “writers;”
they are called by the city government “vandals” and “graffiti artists.” The
core attitude underlying their work is a mixture of adventure seeking, rebelliousness
and self affirmation through creativity. The original writers
seem to have been inspired by the social protest movements of the 1960s,
namely Latin Power, Black Power, and the civil rights movement. With the
invention of the spray can, and the influence of psychedelic posters and
colorful advertising, these inner city youths made their private visions
I have located and interviewed some of the most committed and creative
of these writers, several of whom have exhibited their work in European
galleries. Through listening to their testimonies, I became aware of
some common themes: the heroism and risk taking that is intrinsic to being
a successful writer, the magnetic attraction to and intimate knowledge
of the trains, and a stance of rebelliousness against a society which exploits
the inner city poor. These themes have been explored to some extent in
other works (e.g., Mailer 1974; Castleman 1982; Cooper and Chalfant 1984),
yet no author has presented the works of writers in historical perspective.
Subway painting is presented as a completely new phenomenon, without
precedent or roots.
While writers come from many if not all ethnic groups living in New
York City, it is clear that the working class Black and Latin neighborhoods
of upper Manhattan and the South Bronx have produced many writers
who have contributed significantly to the style and content of subway paintings.
The aim of this paper is to examine ways in which these African American
and Afro-Caribbean writers and their ancestors have related to
trains as symbols and metaphors. As we will see, these ancestors worshipped
gods of iron; they helped build the railways of this country; they
later worked as Pullman porters; and they created work songs, blues songs and poetry using the train as a metaphor for their own aspirations. While
the symbol of train pervades the culture of the United States as a whole,
I will concentrate here on the African-American tradition.
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