Susan Phillips studies and writes about graffiti as an anthropologist. In 2000, while doing research for her book, Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in LA, she stumbled upon some graffiti that stunned her.
Under a century-old bridge near the Los Angeles River, Phillips discovered what appeared to be grease-pencil markings – a practically extinct type of American hieroglyphics called hobo graffiti.
The hobo graffiti was essentially very old examples of "so and so was here," and dated back to 1914. Much of it was signed by hobos whose monikers have long been forgotten. But Phillips says one of them — A-No. 1 — was once America's most famous hobo.
Phillips tells NPR's Michel Martin how she came by this discovery and all about A No. 1.
On what she was looking for the day she made the discovery
A group of friends and I were out exploring looking for just historical graffiti. We were looking for stuff maybe pre-1950. What we found is very understated compared to today's graffiti. We're used to thinking of it as in spray paint, really colorful. What we found was the underside of a bridge with completely undisturbed writing from 1914 to 1921 and it was the graffiti of hobos written in things like charcoal from their fires or chalk, of railroad spiked again to wall written in grease pencil.
On how she knew it was from 1914?
Well, back then, people used to date their graffiti.
On what she thinks the hobos were trying to tell us with this graffiti?
I think that most of what they're trying to say is geared toward themselves and that actually tends to be the way of graffiti, it's not as much a public proclamation as it is an internal communication system with the hobos in particular. And so, if you think about 1914, hardly anybody even had telephones so this was a way that people who were very marginal, very fragilely connected to one another, constantly getting put in jail, constantly on the run, it was a way that they had of forming community.
On who is A No. 1?
A-No.1. is arguably the most famous hobo in the United States. His given name is Leon Ray Livingston and he was born in 1872 and he was a lifelong wanderer. He was riding the rails, and stowing away on ships starting at the age of 11 and then he began to write about his journeys. He wrote about a dozen books on the subject.
On the use of the word Hobo
SP: They don't hear it anymore. People don't use the word so much anymore. People talk about it as being a post-Civil War word that means like, "ho boy." It's a very old word.
On if the word then hobo has the same connotations ascribed to homeless people today
Yes, I think that's the way it started, although there are always groups of people who were considered to be vagrants in the history of the United States. In the post-Civil War era, it gets to be very intense because you have this kind of uprooting that happens but you also have now established railroad tracks from the Civil War that were used to move troops that then were able to carry people to more distant places and as the railroad expands, the hobo tradition expands.
On if the stories of hobos matter
I think it's important to tell histories of people that are not usually part of the historical record and I happen to find that this was A No. 1 who wrote this. But by and large the work that I do is of people who are completely unknown, who really don't leave marks behind in history and the infrastructure of the city, the walls, the railroad bridges, become that history. And if you've nowhere to look for it you can greatly expand your view of what history even means and you begin to look at the city itself as a kind of archive.
Susan Phillips is an anthropologist and associate professor of Environmental Studies at Pitzer College in California. More on Phillips' findings can be found here. Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.