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What is a Moniker?
A moniker, also known as a streak, tag, or hobo art, is a form of graffiti typically found on American freight trains. Created with tools like solid paint sticks or industrial crayons, monikers serve as a means for artists to share stories or capture a moment in time. Artists often have unique designs and may include details like their location or the date of creation. Short phrases, pioneered by buZ blurr with his Colossus of Roads moniker, are sometimes added. Moniker artists are often railroad workers, train hoppers, or railroad enthusiasts.
History of the Moniker
The moniker tradition has its roots in the history of hobos—self-described migratory workers who traveled the US, often by hopping freight trains, especially during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. This nomadic lifestyle led to the development of a unique culture and a system of symbols known as the hobo code, which served as a communication tool among transient workers.
The hobo code, also called the hobo alphabet or hobo signs, featured symbols inscribed in prominent locations to convey crucial information about the surrounding area. This system, indicative of dangers or hospitable environments, played a vital role in the survival of those navigating the railways.
As the hobo code evolved, individuals began leaving their own personal marks, giving rise to the moniker. Much like modern graffiti artists leaving tags, monikers are considered original Americana folk art, appreciated for their ephemeral nature. Despite changes in transportation and the decline of the hobo lifestyle, the moniker tradition continues to thrive globally, demonstrating its enduring influence on contemporary graffiti culture.
Who is buZ blurr? Who is Bill Daniel?
Russell Butler, widely known as buZ blurr, was an American artist and photographer celebrated for his significant contributions to the modern mail art network and boxcar art. Born on August 23rd, 1943, in Lafe, Arkansas, Butler's rural upbringing didn't limit his reach, as he connected with an international audience through his documentation of life via mail art and boxcar graffiti, utilizing railroad and postage networks.
In 1961, Butler commenced studies at Henderson State Teachers College, delving into drawing, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. However, his trajectory shifted in 1964 when he opted for a full-time role at the Missouri Pacific Railroad, marking the beginning of a 41-year career until retirement.
Butler's foray into boxcar art began on November 11th, 1971, inspired by Herby and other notable artists in the field. His initial character, influenced by a tolerant coworker, featured cryptic captions providing a unique storytelling element. Transitioning to Gypsy Sphinx, a nomadic character with cryptic speech, and later Colossus of Roads, a cowboy-inspired by J.H. McKinley's Bozo Texino, Butler's work gained popularity.
His boxcar art, marked by cryptic captions and distinctive characters, remains an integral part of the Moniker movement's rich history.
Russell Butler passed away in January 2024.
Bill Daniel, an American artist and filmmaker, is best known for his immersive documentary Who is Bozo Texino?, which traces the subterranean world of hobo and rail worker graffiti. Over 16 years, Daniel shot the film on freight trips across the western US, exploring the origins of a simple yet iconic rail graffiti – a cowboy character with the moniker Bozo Texino. The documentary serves as a gritty and picaresque journey, uncovering a nearly extinct subculture while suggesting a revival through a new generation of train artists.
In this rough-hewn, black-and-white film, Daniel captures the universal graffiti impulse and the classic notion of freight train blues escape. Who is Bozo Texino? delves into the yearnings of wanderlust, the ethical code of hobos, and the creation of outsider identity. The film resonates with social misfit themes found in American literature, from Jack London to the Beats, and aligns with a contemporary freight punk subculture engaged in zine-making.
Daniel's commitment to preserving the folk art of Monikers is evident as he interviews some of the last remaining old timers during his freight riding trips. The documentary has garnered cult status among freight hoppers, graffiti fans, and punk folklorists. Since its completion in 2005, Who is Bozo Texino? has been widely screened at venues such as MOMA, film festivals worldwide, and hundreds of DIY spaces, helping the legacy of hobo and moniker culture reach diverse audiences globally.
Why is the Moniker important for our culture of street art and graffiti?
The Moniker holds significant importance within our culture of street art and graffiti due to its profound influence on the evolution and diversity of urban artistic expression. Originating from the nomadic traditions of hobos and merging with the rebellious spirit of style writing, the Moniker embodies a unique intersection of rural roots and urban landscapes.
Its importance lies in the Moniker's role as a symbol of individuality and resistance against societal norms. The raw and unrefined aesthetics of Moniker art, characterized by bold lines and expressive symbols, challenge conventional notions of art. This departure from traditional canvases to unconventional materials mirrors the rebellious ethos of style writing graffiti, showcasing the Moniker's ability to adapt and thrive in urban settings.
As a visual language, Monikers serve as a historical link to hobo culture, where symbols conveyed information among transient individuals. The evolution of Moniker art in urban settings, marked by experimentation with styles and techniques, reflects the broader transformation of urban art over time. It has become a testament to the adaptability and resilience of street art, with Monikers evolving into intricate, visually captivating designs.
The importance of the Moniker is further underscored by the contributions of influential artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat (SAMO) and Keith Haring. The monikers of these artworld icons transcended mere self-expression, resonating with broader social and cultural themes. This elevation of Moniker culture bridged the gap between street art and the mainstream, emphasizing its enduring significance within the broader art landscape.
In essence, the Moniker is allied with our culture of street art and graffiti because it encapsulates the spirit of rebellion, freedom, and individuality that defines these artistic movements. Its journey from the nomadic lifestyle of hobos to the vibrant, dynamic urban art scene symbolizes the enduring impact and adaptability of Moniker culture, making it an integral and influential aspect of our cultural tapestry.
Moniker: An Origin Story exhibition spotlights iconic moniker artists, with a special focus on the enduring creative friendship between Russell Butler, also known as buZ blurr, and Bill Daniel, spanning over 30 years. In a heartfelt tribute, we also acknowledge the passing of the beloved Butler in January 2024, as this group show of like-minded makers now takes on an even more poignant role in honoring his lasting legacy.
In addition to the focus on buZ blurr and Bill Daniel, Moniker: An Origin Story will also present a group of 37 boxcar steel panels on loan from Massillon Museum. These panels feature unique moniker artworks from both living and departed artists within the tradition.
This exhibition aims to educate the diverse audience at the STRAAT Museum in Amsterdam about the significance of the Moniker movement while also serving as a platform for enthusiasts.
Explore this world of original and print artworks, connecting with the essence of this unique movement through the lens of pivotal artists.
The full list of contributing artists includes:
2359, Alquimia Ferrocarrilera, Bill Daniel, Coaltrain, Colossus of Roads, Ed Haskel, Fat Owl, Flangesqueal, I'm Ugly, Khaze, The Kodak Kid, Lamps, Leroy Drown, Milktooth, Mr. Bass, NY Tomato, North Bank Fred, NOVA, POOH. The Rambler, Shrug, Smokin' Joe, The Solo Artist, Stonewall Jim, Swampy, Take 5, Tex Goth, Wooden Axle, Bozo Texino, Conrail Twitty, Herby, Iowa Blackie, J.B. King Esq, Matokie Slaughter, Mud Up, Taurus, El Truncón, Water Bed Lou.
Moniker: An Origin Story is open to the public from Sunday, March 10th until Sunday, April 28th, 2024, and is included as part of visitor’s regular museum entry ticket.
"Monicas" are the nom-de-rails that hoboes assume or accept when thrust upon them by their fellows.