Hundred Year Old Hobo Graffiti
October 3, 2008 § 5 Comments
“River Bottom is Queerest Spot in Los Angeles / Hobos Washing; Junk Men Searching … The inherent desire of the roaming tramp seems to be to leave at the places where he has tarried some mark or inscription as evidence of his visit. Scrawled in oil and tar on the concrete bases of the sewer trestle, below Fourth street, are a great number of these marks. 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.”
Los Angeles Times, August 5th 1923
On the underside of a bridge along the L.A. River somewhere in the heart of Los Angeles, there’s some very impressive graffiti. It’s not written in spray paint, just chalk and charcoal. It was written by hobos nearly a hundred years ago. Usually creek freak tries to give our readers detailed location descriptions and directions, so you can easily go explore for yourself, but this time I’m a little hesitant to tell folks exactly where this is – because this stuff is pretty delicate and I’d hate to see it disturbed or defaced. You may be able to find it based on hints here.
I didn’t discover this myself. Many years ago, I was leading a tour for a group of college students from
Pomona Pitzer College. Their professor, Susan Phillips, studies graffiti and when we reached a certain spot on the tour, she asked me if I’d seen the hobo graffiti there. I hadn’t. She pointed it out – on the underside of a nearby bridge. It’s mostly names like “Kid Bill” and with dates from the nineteen-teens. There’s also a small drawing of a horse. Some of the writing in Spanish. The professor told me that she had searched for evidence of hobo occupation at various sites where there are water, railroads and shelter and had come across this site. One of the reasons that the writing has been preserved is because the channel was later deepened, putting the graffiti out of reach of people and floodwaters.
Various hobo graffiti has been studied and cataloged. Commonly understood markings signify things like safe houses, free food, kind women, etc. There are even basic glossaries on the web. Though I don’t claim to have any expertise, this graffiti appears to only be names. Here’s my transcription of what I can make out of the text: “HB,” “RHW,” “VA ?INFEN??,” “Kid StAM?N?,” ANO 1 CAMPO?ON K,” “FS,” drawing of a horse, “?ARDE?,” “HNO? OLE F? +8-13-14,” in drawing of scroll: “J.W.J. CHITO TUCSON ?i? 9?/1/21,” “Kid SMItH,” “Ki? EE? KID,” “Adentro? Culos de Sangre,” “8-12-14 +HARDEN+,” “Kid. ART THE BALLTLING? GiLdf?,” “MIKE TH???,” “KID BILL+ 8-13-14,” “R. H. WiLLiaMSoN,” “KID-FLINT,” “Kid WANNA tHE JACKASS,” “TOM D,” “?ANG??,” “OAKLANDRED,” and “Ki.”
About as long as there’s been a Los Angeles River, people without homes have taken shelter by it. The subject recurs in historic accounts. Homelessness continues to be an issue today – definitely on the river and elsewhere. Bicycling along the river in Elysian Valley this week, I passed a spot where people appear to be living. As we restore and revitalize the Los Angeles River, we’re going to need to work to solve this issue. I think that this should involve making housing and healthcare universally available. One step in the right direction is to support Mayor Villaraigosa’s recently released housing plan which includes a new policy to include affordable housing in all new development – a policy called “mixed income housing” or “inclusionary zoning.” The mixed income housing policy is also an important step to curb gentrification which can be expected to continue to follow governmental investment in the river. I don’t have the answers on this – so I’d encourage readers to comment here to advance a dialog about it.
“As it begins with nomads, it ends with nomads. Tribal people 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.” Patt Morrison, Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River
(updated 9/5/2013 to correct information regarding professor)