The Pere Marquette and philosophical conversation about art, graffiti and lost liberties
By Charles Chandler
Photos by Keith Payne
What can you do when you can’t do what you want to? Experts advise focusing on what you can control and what is in front of you. Good advice, how about that big train going by? Last week I was social distancing with a friend and fellow White Cloud Resident. We were relaxing in comfortable rocking style camp chairs on their property along the White River and the Pere Marquette Railroad. The sun was warm, the Orioles were singing in the branches overhead. The river was sparkling and gurgling along below the bank and a trout fisherman was wading upstream near the iconic wooden Pere Marquette railroad trestle. It was rumored that a nervous doe was nearby trying unsuccessfully to hide an improbable number of tiny fawns. It felt kind of like I was in one of those bucolic Norman Rockwell paintings.
We were enjoying a cool adult beverage bottled in Michigan, some salty fattening snacks, and complaining about our liberties being taken away. We were having trouble determining exactly which liberty we were losing. We knew we were losing something because our President, our Guvnor, and Ted Nugent were talking about our Michigan liberties. It was one of those philosophical moments that senior adults have. Our conversation was interrupted by the whistle of the approaching Pere Marquette Freight Train (PM). Now what to do, weighty decisions had to be made in the moment. Focus on the passing train or the fly fisherman.
Most of the time the PM Freight Train wins. Who doesn’t watch a passing train?
Most of the residents in White Cloud that I hang out with like the PM Freighter. We refer to it as “Our” train. The crews almost always wave. The train is mostly quiet, always slow and their light schedule makes its appearance more interesting than intrusive. Sometimes at our street crossing four or five cars we will have to wait a few minutes when the crew is adding or dropping cars at the feed mill. Sometimes we will see folks do a U-turn to try and find another street to reduce their few minutes of wait time. We have a saying, “what’s the rush if you had someplace to be you would already be there.” As a small rural town, we feel that the train connects us to the larger commercial world.
The other thing the PM does is bring us some of the most interesting and sometimes beautiful boxcar art or if you prefer spray-painted graffiti. I know, I know, but art and vandalism are often in the eyes of the beholder. I am not condoning a destructive criminal act of vandalism. So, before you fire off like a fourth of July bottle rocket there is a continuum here that can be considered. Examples of spray-painted graffiti range from the scary gang symbology, the crude vulgar adolescent scribbling under the local bridge to beautiful expansive urban murals. Yes, there are as many different laws, views, and opinions about spray paint graffiti as there are fleas on a stray dog. In many municipalities spray painting is illegal, unsightly and where forbidden, expensive to remove or cover-up. It is a well known modern problem “whether rural or urban, a big city or small town, graffiti is a persistent issue plaguing communities in America. An estimated $12 billion is spent on cleaning up graffiti per year in the United States, according to the Department of Justice.” Some spray painters are caught arrested, fined, made to pay restitution, or thrown in jail.
What I can speak to is this, graffiti is an ancient human art form and the meaning of the content and the intent of the painter is complex. I bumped into this concept in my first Cultural Anthropology class when Professor Garrick Bailey asked this question. In human development which came first, art or self-awareness. I don’t know but I do think both happened really close together. The act of doing and enjoying art is innate in humans. Humans have for a very long time expressed themselves in various places, forms, and mediums. Today you can see 45000-year-old examples of stylized animals painting in French and Spanish caves. Is it graffiti or art? These images are now universally accepted as an art form done by imaginative Neandertal painters in charcoal and ocher on touch lit cave walls. This form of expression marches from these ancient caves on down through time to the pictographs found in our southwestern rock shelters and canyon walls. Again, graffiti vandalism or art? These examples are symbolic and the content and intent of the peoples that put these images up are lost to time.
Spray painted graffiti is symbolic and a recent pop-cultural phenomenon that developed in the 70s. It began in the dark of night by some pioneer tagger and the motivation was said to be notoriety. The output of these first acts were a few mysterious symbols representing a new urban language that few understood (I personally think it was a protest against Disco Music).
Now it is a global form of communication, still controversial, still illegal, reviled by many, and little understood outside of that subculture and law enforcement. The over the top apocalyptic graffiti that I see is often in the interurban environments, in the poorer, gritty minority neighborhoods. Said to be most often gang-related in a local dialect and never meant to be understood by we travelers.
To that end it has been stated by these vandals or painters that “the voicelessness of our society is something we shouldn’t run away from or turn a blind eye to, we simply must find a way to express our feelings and attitudes, and evoke some kind of reaction in the apathetic culture around us. What better way to demonstrate your thoughts and emotions than to put them on a wall in the middle of a public area for everyone to see, experience, and, ultimately, think about.”
Again, I am not condoning illegal vandalism and spray-painting graffiti on a boxcar is illegal. But I am thinking about it. I know these boxcar spray painters are trespassing and working for hours on their creations in their dangerous railroad studios. According to internet sources, it cost rail car owners about $1000. to repaint the lower half of a railroad car.
With all that said I think the examples we see here in White Cloud on rolling PM freight car galleries are the very best. They are done by modern masters in some dark faraway freight yard. Some of these examples are the fine art of spray-painted boxcar graffiti. From our sunny riverside seat, we watch the PM freight cars roll by. Commenting on each unique example of art or graffiti, we defer the argument. We cannot understand the message, motivation, and probably the wasted talent, but we know good when we see it. The colors, the light and dark shadings, and the forms are exceptional. I am privileged to see this visual feast of human expression.
After the last car we turn back to see if the wading fly fisherman had caught a trout. With our adult beverages in hand we continue our conversation regarding which liberties we are losing while waiting to see if one of the tiny adorable and impatient fawns will show themselves.
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