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Century-Old Hobo Graffiti Found Under L.A. River Bridge

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(Photo by johndoeforty1 via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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Under an otherwise unmemorable L.A. River bridge, anthropologist Susan Phillips found a scribbling dated "8/13/14" and signed "A-No. 1." It shouldn't have been anything but an ordinary day at work for Phillips, whose research centers on urban graffiti—except the marking wasn't done in spray paint, and that "14" stood for 1914, not 2014. Phillips had discovered a century-old trove of hobo graffiti under the bridge, emblems of an an "almost extinct form of American hieroglyphics." According to the Associated Press, who reported on the story, A-No. 1 himself was a major player in the bygone subculture:

Although all but forgotten now, A-No. 1 was the moniker used by a man once arguably America's most famous hobo, one of the many itinerant wanderers who traveled from town to town in the 19th and 20th centuries, often by freight train, in search of brief work and lasting adventure.

"It was like opening a tomb that's been closed for 80 years," Phillips told the AP. Hobo graffiti was more than just an art form, or a marking of territory—it was a secret language or sorts, replete with symbols to aid and guide other transients:

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"Those little heart things are actually stylized arrows that are pointing up the river," Phillips said, pointing to markings next to the name. "Putting those arrows that way means 'I'm going upriver. I was here on this date and I'm going upriver.'

Hobo graffiti was, as explained in The Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, "a way to communicate with other hobos in rudimentary ways—much in the same vein that New York City subway writers in the 1970s communicated with each other."

The city's current homelessness crisis, coupled with fears of a drenching El Niño, has brought renewed attention to the denizens of L.A.'s concrete river beds, but, as Patt Morrison wrote in Rio L.A, "tribal people [have] lived for thirty centuries in a peripatetic minuet with the river and the water. In the twentieth century, other tribes took up residence along the angled concrete verges."

As early as 1905, flood coverage in the L.A. Times drew concern for those living on the edges of the then-unpaved river. After pouring rains in February 1905, "squatters who live in shanties along the river bottoms were forced to crawl like half-drowned rats for dry land."

Ten years later, in 1914—the same year that onetime "hobo king" A-No. 1 made his markings—104 members of "the 'unemployed army' of loafers" were arrested in the Los Angeles river bed, according to contemporaneous L.A. Times coverage. The charges? Being "idle and dissolute."

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Hobo subculture was transient and fluid, full of existences eked out on the ever-moving fringes of an earlier America. According to the Routledge Handbook, "invisibility was the key to their movement and the graffiti on the walls of train cars, water towers or railroad towns speak of this transience." The pictographic writing was carved into boxcars and scrawled out with impromptu materials—tar that dripped from passing trains, shoe polish, and oil-based paints. So how did these markings survive, when wall graffiti itself tends to be as impermanent as a hobo camp?

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Los Angeles River overflowing its banks, 1938. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Like so much of L.A. history, it all comes down to the water. The L.A. River was the city's primary water source until the Los Angeles aqueduct opened in 1913, and it was the site of periodic, deadly floods well until the 1930s. The Army Corps of Engineers didn't begin channeling (read: concretizing) the river until after the catastrophic flood of 1938, which took the lives of 113 Angelenos. In order to pave over the river, workers had to first dig out its bed, effectively lowering its bottom by 25 feet. The hobo graffiti was rendered inaccessible for years to come. Its preservation was an unintended, if happy, accident, and still stands, as a window into time."Trudging over the sands of the Los Angeles river bed a few days ago, I came upon another world," Norvad Edwards wrote in the L.A. Times late in the summer of 1923. To Edwards, the river bottom in the summertime, "with its miles of blazing sand," looked like a desert.

Amongst the "warped kegs and boxes" and broken bottles, Edwards came upon a bearded Russian man, "doubtless a patriarch in the little colony," busily plying a piece of black leather to make markings.

"The inherent desire of the roaming tramp," Edwards wrote, "seems to be to leave at the places where he has tarried some mark or inscription as evidence of his last visit. Scrawled in oil and tar on the concrete bases of the sewer line trestle, below Fourth street, are a great number of these marks."

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"They bear mute testimony to the visits to the river bottom of numerous notables of hobo-land. If they are to be accepted as authentic," Edwards continued.