Do you hear that whistle down the line?
February 5, 2017 10:12 AM   Subscribe

 
The only people I know who are really, really into model trains are graffiti artists. There is an underground economy and culture of model trains painted by street artists. Sort of like a criminal version of Pokemon collecting, but with tiny HO trains.

It's funny because on graffiti related forums you will see them nerding out hard about the different types of trains, and they will link to traditional train hobbyist sites and forums, but always warn each other "don't tell them you're a writer!! Just talk about the trains"

I have no interest in trains but I've managed to pick up about a dozen via friends or bugging artists on Instagram (which is the best way to find them). I should get a track...
posted by bradbane at 10:27 AM on February 5 [69 favorites]


bradbane what a fascinating insight into a sub culture of a subculture sneaking into another subculture! Little things like that make me stay on the internet in these otherwise depressing times.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:37 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


That is amazing bradbane. If you have the time, this would be worthy of the front page on its own.
posted by honestcoyote at 10:42 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


bradbane

i am trying to imagine the first year of interactions in model train stores between this stereotype and this stereotype and my mind is screaming SITCOM NOW!
posted by lalochezia at 11:05 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


- I'm not really surprised that graffiti artists are into model trains, as the only place that I see quality graffiti these days outside of visits to big cities are trains that roll through town. I have to say that I'm tickled by the idea of someone who formerly made midnight raids into rail yards to do their work sitting at their kitchen table peering through a magnifying lens while "tagging" their little boxcars with neat little rows of model paint.

- Some mention should be made of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club, an early hotbed of hacker/computer culture. It still exists today.

- I loved this description of early power supplies:
the craziest, and most perilous, model-train power source of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was electro-chemical, involving glass jars, water, live direct-current electricity hot-wired from a lamp cord, sheets of toxic-to-the-touch lead cut into jar-size rectangles, and sulphuric acid, which had to be poured on top of the water in the lead-filled jars, but never the other way around because water poured into a container of sulphuric acid will bubble, hiss, and splatter in every direction, burning holes in clothing and flesh alike. “It was not recommended for the clumsy boy,” Souter says in his best deadpan.

Better were the dynamos, be they hand-cranked or water-powered. “Little Brother would usually be the Dynamo Man for a model-train session,” Souter says, “cranking until the evening express arrived at the station, or until he blacked out, whichever came first.” The Carlisle & Finch water-powered dynamo was a less labor-intensive power source, since it was simply hooked up to a kitchen faucet to generate 8-to-10 volts of electrical current. “It worked fine until Mom had to make dinner,” Souter says.
“It was not recommended for the clumsy boy.” That would have ruled me out!
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:09 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


Metafilter: Not recommended for the clumsy boy.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:16 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


Metafilter: for the clumsy boy.
posted by evilDoug at 11:32 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: the clumsy boy.
posted by evilDoug at 11:33 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: clumsy.
posted by evilDoug at 11:33 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: boy!
posted by Floydd at 12:17 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]


I suspect the decline of model railroading tracks closely with the rise and primacy of car and airplane travel. Trains just don't have a place in most people's world, except as something that blocks traffic on your way home.

An HO scale railroad complete with graffitied cars sounds awfully cool, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:24 PM on February 5


sadly, because we are nerds our 8x4 layout is all computer controlled including switch machines and signals... So, not too lowtech :)
posted by twidget at 12:33 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


i am trying to imagine the first year of interactions in model train stores between this stereotype and this stereotype and my mind is screaming SITCOM NOW!

Tagger & Taggert, coming to NBC this fall!
posted by interrobang at 12:43 PM on February 5 [8 favorites]


There are definitely some tattooed, hard drinking vandals out there with garages full of miniature train tracks and mini towns just as nerdy as any old school hobbyist. They just graffiti their mini towns.

I was given a little painted HO train as a gift for an assignment I worked on a few years ago that had me chasing graffiti artists around for a story. It was from a semi-famous guy in my town who was known for having a pet crocodile (that he brought with him into the tunnels beneath my city while he painted down there). I thought it was just some quirky thing he did until someone else gave me one. Then I realized it was "a thing" that goes back decades, they all paint little trains as mock ups or to trade with other artists they admire, and being given one was like a "hey I like your work, you're cool" kind of deal. These guys literally sit around smoking joints with very, very tiny little brushes and work studiously on their little trains. Then they go online and compare 'weathering' tips with old school hobbyists on train forums.

Anyways, I sort of became obsessed with them after that & after I saw a bunch that were in a museum exhibition so I started buying them from all the local graffiti writers.

All my friends think I'm nuts when I talk about this so glad you guys like this weird intersection of two weird subcultures. I just thought it was a cool (and pretty cheap!) way to collect art from people whose work I saw every day walking around my town. For anyone interested, the social media platform of choice is definitely Instagram - every tagger in your town definitely has an account somewhere, if you can find it. Then you can message them for a commission or just watch their accounts, one day when rent is due they'll post a bunch for sale. One day I'm going to set up a track around the Christmas tree or something and watch all the little writers names go round.
posted by bradbane at 1:33 PM on February 5 [23 favorites]


My dad built Lionel layouts in our garage every year when I was a little girl and it seems to me there are just cheaper and/or easier ways to scratch all those itches. Model trains have a lot of competition now. My current Christmas layout uses Lego trains instead and we can set it up and tear it down in an hour or so, no tools required. And if our kids drop a train on the floor and it falls apart, hooray, we get to build some Lego.
posted by potrzebie at 1:50 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


i am trying to imagine the first year of interactions in model train stores between this stereotype and this stereotype and my mind is screaming SITCOM NOW!

Ok last story, but at one point I went to buy some 'blanks' to mail to some artists, but the only place I could find that sold HO scale trains was the local ACE hardware which had a hobbyist section in the basement. I don't know anything about trains much less model ones, so I spent a while looking through the shelves trying to figure out what would be cool to have painted. So I'm looking at like a HO scale auto car rack or whatever and this other guy, college age baggy pants and clearly stoned out of his mind, walks past me and is like "oh shit that's a good one bro" and kind of winks.

So we both walk up to the counter each with a HO scale train and an older gentleman at the checkout looks at us and says, "Boy you guys sure are going to have a fun afternoon."

Still regret not asking the other guy what name he wrote.
posted by bradbane at 1:56 PM on February 5 [15 favorites]


To add: Weathering the cars is itself an art form. On the average model train forum you'll find people just starting out with a simple paint wash on up to really dedicated folks that spend hours and hours on a car with many layers of washes, dust and rust to mimic the real thing. Not to mention recipes that use all sorts of random kitchen/household goods to make various goops and powders that give you the spent-three-decades-on-the-rails look.

One of the things that strikes me about a lot of the Instagram graffiti artists is how quickly they pick up an understanding of believable/accurate weathering on the final product. Not sure if that comes with spending time near the real thing or just attention to detail.
posted by asterisk at 2:04 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Nobody's mentioned The Sopranos yet?
posted by lagomorphius at 2:05 PM on February 5


Guess who else likes model trains?
posted by lagomorphius at 2:08 PM on February 5


For people who like YouTube build channels like Clickspring etc, there's of course also plenty of railway / diorama channels on YouTube. I've found myself watching a lot of Boulder Creek Railroad videos lately. For an example of his diorama build skills, check out e.g. A Drive Through Yellowstone.
posted by effbot at 2:51 PM on February 5 [7 favorites]


I have sprained my clicking finger clicking the link too fast.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:00 PM on February 5


Holy shit this is like the Bob Ross of train dioramas.
posted by bradbane at 3:11 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


I honestly think my only real ambition in life is to have a big model train layout someday.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:53 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Well now I'm going to have to track down some graffiti forums, because the model train forums I'm on all have people who get loudly annoyed when the subject of graffiti comes up.

Other things that make them loudly annoyed: movies where they race through active grade crossings, Amtrak, Union Pacific, years more recent than about 1990. But the graffiti thing seems to be what gets at them the most.
posted by ckape at 4:19 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


When I was a kid, high tech was the control booth at my local model railroad club. It was a dimly lit, glassed in area in the middle of the layout where two or three guys with headsets were constantly flipping loud clacky switches under a giant track map embedded with green and red LEDs.

I returned to that same layout a few years ago and was a little disappointed to see that the control room and track map had been removed. Instead of sitting in the middle of everything, those guys with their headsets were now walking around the layout with little handheld lcd consoles that they'd occasionally plug into RJ-45 jacks scattered around.

Even though I know pumping DCC signals down the rails to command individual locomotives is way more advanced than just switching the power off and on along discrete sections of track, it just doesn't seem right.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:30 PM on February 5


Isn't there some video game tie in to collecting figures, some devious new way to soak parents for every spare dime they have? I seem to remember Penny Arcade talking about it. You buy the figure, enter a code, and you can then play the character in the video game or something like that.

Perhaps that would save model trains, find a way to combine the railway board games with train sets? Sounds impossible, but everything is tied into everything these days.
posted by Beholder at 5:11 PM on February 5


I always wanted a perpetually running model train suspended/nestled into the upper boundary of a room, like where crown moulding would go. Now, if that ever becomes a thing, I'll be sure to arrange for some of the cars to be tagged appropriately.

Thanks for the post and commentary.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:44 PM on February 5


I haven't read the article yet - is the answer time? The passage of time?
posted by stinkfoot at 6:25 PM on February 5


stinkfoot - The answer is my post title is taken from the song On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:30 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


My grandparents built an extension on their house for my Grandpa's train set up. It was huge. We could go and watch, and occasionally get to throw the points, if we were careful. The amount of detail work and world building was amazing. He even made and painted his own trees.

When they downsized, Grandpa got a small shed out the back, and shrank down to a smaller gauge of track and engine. But then his arthritis got bad, and he gave it up. I think it hurt him a lot that he had trouble even giving it away, as there were so few model train enthusiasts still alive by then.
posted by kjs4 at 7:31 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


My FIRST job was at a five-and-dime type variety store (only in 1994 so more expensive than fives and dimes); my SECOND job was at a high-end toy store that sold Madame Alexander dolls and model trains in all scales. AND it was less than two blocks from a line that hosted Chicago Metras, Union Pacific, Canadian National, Chicago North Western, and others -- which is to say a great many "foamers" (the perjorative nickname for railfans, because they foamed at the mouth when they saw a new engine) would come rushing into our store demanding the catalog so they could look up the engine they just saw.

Anyway, it was a fascinating job selling to the hobbyists who build these crazy-realistic scenes. The train cars were honestly the least interesting part; the landscaping and paint and whatnot was the coolest bit.

Also sometimes when one of our regular foamers saw a new engine, he'd buy us ice cream at the ice cream shop next door and that was pretty good.

I am totally going to buy myself a graffiti HO car.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:59 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]


stinkfoot - The answer is my post title is taken from the song On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe

I was riffin' on the title of the article but, damn! Judy is incredible!
posted by stinkfoot at 8:00 PM on February 5


A love of trains and model trains is one of the few things my sister and I both got from our father. On weekends when we went over to stay with him after our parents got divorced, he would take us over to friends' houses who had huge basement wide layouts. We would tinker with his layout, but it was a small, temporary thing. He also used to drive us out to the train yards in Kalamazoo on Sunday mornings and we would watch the freight cars running back and forth. My sister was a fan of the Chessie System, I was a fan of Railbox and Santa Fe. A house in Japan is really no place to build a layout, but every once in a while, I find myself in hobby shops, gazing longingly at N scale trains. I can't really imagine ever trying to build my own layout, simply because of money, and the horrible moment when it's finished, and I wonder what to do with it. Still, in some bizarre alternate universe, where money, time, and space are no object, I would love to build a full N-gauge layout of the Tokyo train system. All the subways. All the surface trains. I can't even begin to imagine how large it would be, but it would be glorious.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:09 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]


Gidorah, have you seen Z-scale trains? Each car is just two or three centimeters long! My dad was always an HO-scale builder but he got a set of Z track and some cars on a trip to Germany and its ridiculous size delighted him.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:17 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


Isn't there some video game tie in to collecting figures, some devious new way to soak parents for every spare dime they have? I seem to remember Penny Arcade talking about it. You buy the figure, enter a code, and you can then play the character in the video game or something like that.

You're probably thinking of Skylanders, the game which started the (terribly-named) "Toys-to-Life" genre. You buy the base game which comes with a platform with an RFID sensor that plugs into the games console. Then you buy extra characters which have an RFID chip inside. You place the figures on the platform, and the character is then available to play in the console game. Skylanders was the first and probably most famous, there's also the now-cancelled Disney Infinity (which combined all Disney properties - Mickey Mouse, Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, Pixar, etc), Amiibos which are Nintendo characters that work with some WiiU games, and Lego Dimensions (which has buildable Lego models as the figures).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:56 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


wenestvedt, I have seen them, but N-gauge is sort of what I was raised on, what my dad collected, and they just seem right to me. HO always seemed a bit too big to pass as realistic (at that size, you should be able to see in the trains, etc, but N keeps the detail, but is small enough to pass as some sort of tilt-shifted world.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:49 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


It's funny because on graffiti related forums you will see them nerding out hard about the different types of trains, and they will link to traditional train hobbyist sites and forums, but always warn each other "don't tell them you're a writer!! Just talk about the trains"

That's not even the oddest subculture to merge with train enthusiasm. In the UK in the 1990s, there was apparently a phenomenon known as “gricing”, which involved sneaking into rail yards and being photographed naked next to locomotives, with the serial number visible.
posted by acb at 7:18 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


sadly, because we are nerds our 8x4 layout is all computer controlled including switch machines and signals... So, not too lowtech :)

Get back to us when you have an ETCS system implemented over Bluetooth, if not an actual ultra-low-power rumpus-room-scale GSM-R network.
posted by acb at 7:25 AM on February 6


A friend/sometime boyfriend belongs to a model RR club. These guys aren't graffiti artists (that I know of) but they are all tattooed, pierced, wearing jeans that leave nothing to the imagination, highly educated nice bunch of guys. They are the type of men that every time you talk to one, you learn something. Their individual train set ups are mind blowing, and they party like it's 1999. I love those guys.
posted by james33 at 8:08 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I suspect that one other factor in the decline of model railways is the shrinking of living space, at least among people living in urban areas, and a shift from buying property and holding onto it permanently to either renting and moving frequently or regarding property as an asset and buying/selling repeatedly. If you're growing up in a 1960s-style suburban subdivision with a generous garage and rumpus room, or a house with unused attic space, setting aside a large table for the building of a model railway layout is plausible. If you're living in an apartment, there's nowhere to put a model railway of any enjoyable size; and if you're likely to move in the next few years, there's less incentive to build one.
posted by acb at 8:12 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]


With realistic chuffing sound
posted by flabdablet at 8:35 AM on February 6


Uncles on both sides of my family were big in to Lionel trains when they were kids, and neither had space as adults to set them up, so we ended up with a ton of Lionel equipment from the 1950s and 60s. And then I ended up with all of them after my parents downsized, but I don't have the space to set them up either.

My goal would be to refurbish them to a point where I can give them to my brother's kids - the older one loves trains, and they have more living space to set them up than we do. They're in various states of disrepair, though, and I'm a little afraid of finding out how much it would cost the local model train shop to fix them (yeah of course we have a local model train shop, doesn't everyone?).

My proudest achievements with the trains as a kid was getting the set pieces to trigger as the trains drove by using pressure plates hidden under the track. I was even able to get two trains running on a double loop at once using pressure plates to activate switches and selectively electrify certain sections of track so they wouldn't crash in to each other.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:46 AM on February 6


One of my "someday"s is an N scale loop around the perimeter of my shop. At 33 feet to the mile I've got enough wall length for 3 scale miles.
posted by Mitheral at 5:58 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


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