The political railway graffiti of IMPEACH
by Paul Schmelzer
“I want the graff points of getting up and making my name stick in people’s minds,” a Minneapolis-based graffiti artist recently told me. “I neurotically look myself up on the Internet, just like every other writer. Fame is the name of the game.”
But where this artist departs from most of his peers is that fame isn’t just about self-aggrandizement or the ego kick of “getting up.” To borrow the text of one of his massive boxcar pieces, he’s engaged in an “ideology war”— and as he becomes increasingly well known for his train graffiti, he’s using his renown to spread poetic and often political messages about poverty, income inequality, and corruption across the country.
Known only as IMPEACH, he grew up in the Great Plains state of North Dakota, watching trains from the BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways pass through town. When he relocated to Minneapolis, he brought with him a passion for trains and a kind of prairie aesthetic, which came through in the graffiti he began creating in the late 1990s. He experimented with postering and stickers and developed the graffiti style that, after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took the White House, would become associated with his IMPEACH tag. Unlike the throw-ups and typographical experiments of hip-hop–based or “wild style” graffiti, he creates letter-forms that echo the vernacular type he grew up with, from grain silo lettering to the Barnum and Bailey Circus program, saloon signage to hand-painted mom-and-pop store sale ads.
“I stylize my work to be recognized as mine,” he says. “With trains, it is ‘the rabble’ that I most consider. I want something that doesn’t conjure up graff to them. I choose fonts that are familiar and comfortable to them (and me), to pull their sensibilities in.”
But once they’re lured in, viewers find a message that might be less comforting. Part headline, part protest banner, his freight works scream: “Torture.” “Debt Slaves.” “Poverty” (including one version that features a cartoon of mythic moneybags Scrooge McDuck). “Rest in Peace Middle Class.” “Class War (It’s On).” Some are more literally pulled from the headlines (“Thank You, Snowden,” “Rolling Jubilee,” “Dumb 2 Frack,” and, from 2011, “Birthers”), while others exude self-help optimism (“Gratitude,” “Dignity: Power from the Bottom Up”).
While each message on a train car may only convey so much, his aim is to create a larger narrative through the compilation of his works, spread across time and space, linked by his distinct style.
“If you look at one thing and then the other — this word and then that word — I hope it makes a story, without having to write in the paragraphs,” he says. “What does ‘Poverty’ have to do with ‘Bailout’? What does ‘Bailout’ have to do with ‘Austerity’? Why would you write ‘Blowback Quagmire’? The ego comes back into that, though. I could make it so you have no idea they’re done by the same person, but I want it to be known as the same person to keep that storyline.”
He also sees his job as “keeping track” — to use a likely unintended railroad pun: making something concrete out of ideas that mainstream culture doesn’t like to discuss.
“When you think of radical political art, you think of anarchy: ‘Eat the Rich,’ or something. The stuff I do is almost moderate, like ‘Don’t Torture.’ To me, that’s just common sense. It’s not a radical idea. But I’m saying it out loud. Torture is just something we all feel uncomfortable talking about, so it seems important to write it big so we don’t forget that we indeed have tortured, we teach torture, and we’ve made rendition legal, so we actually still torture.”
Josh MacPhee, a Brooklyn-based activist, curator, and founder of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, says that what IMPEACH is doing is innovative in the realm of freight train graffiti: “merging the hobo politics and sensibilities of the past with contemporary graffiti letter-forms and aesthetics.”
MacPhee has been tracking work by the artist he’s dubbed “middle America’s graffiti troubadour” since at least 2008. He has blogged about IMPEACH’s political rail art three dozen times so far, and in 2010, he included his train work in the first issue of Signal, the Justseeds magazine dedicated to global political graphics. He’s hooked by the strategy of leveraging America’s massive network of rail lines to promote progressive social change.
“While most of us click away on keyboards and phones to spread news of the latest injustice on social media platforms only seen by people that we already know and [who] largely agree with us, IMPEACH grabs those same headlines and covers trains with them,” MacPhee says. “He’s created an entirely new art form — behemoth metal broadsheets, tracking the news across North America.”
His graffiti peers seem to agree. River, from the Twin Cities–based TCI crew, says IMPEACH isn’t easily categorized. “Sure, you could call him a ‘political writer,’ ‘font writer,’ or just straight ‘freight writer,’ but none of those fit him properly. He’s in a category all by himself.”
IMPEACH’s politics, while often urgently of-the-moment, do seem to spark from older times, and he acknowledges as much. His “Poverty” pieces were influenced by Hank Williams’ 1953 tale of hardship and despair, A Picture From Life’s Other Side. A hopper car emblazoned with “It Can’t Happen Here” gets its name from Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel of the same name, a semi-satirical story of a populist presidential candidate who delivers totalitarianism after his election in 1936. And his “Bread and Roses” boxcar references the pivotal 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Mass., which took its slogan from a 1911 James Oppenheim poem of the same name. Even the name of the crew he often writes with — the Abe Lincoln Brigade — harkens to a classic historical fight against fascism: it took its name from the 2,800 or so American volunteers who fought to defend the Spanish Republic from rebels led by Franco, and backed by Hitler and Mussolini, in the latter part of the Spanish Civil War.
Of course, with social problems as complex as poverty, as intractable as income inequality, as opaque as governmental corruption, IMPEACH’s work begs an obvious question: Can it change minds?
“Is it as effective as buying a full page in the newspaper or putting the same message out on billboards or buying commercials on TV? No,” he admits. “But it is something, and it makes me feel better and gets the weight of the world a little more off my shoulders. Things like stealing elections make me angry. Go figure. And writing it down gets that anger out, so I can be more fun at parties and not end up talking about our oppressive system on a date.”
“And trains,” he adds, “they go, so I don’t even have to live with it. I got that idea out, I said it to somebody. It’s out there, and I can move on.”