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Looking Back: More than meets the eye


John Kinnear

Apr 19, 2023

In the last few years my railroad interests has been concentrated specifically on the world of train art lettering styles and trying to decipher what they say.

I am an unabashed train chaser and have been for many years. You should not be surprised to see me pulled over on the highway in the most unlikely places, jumping out of my vehicle in a panic. It usually means I have spotted another railway car colour parade working its way through the Pass and I am focusing on photographically capturing as many of the decorated cars as I can. 

 In the last few years my railroad interests has been concentrated specifically on the world of train art lettering styles and trying to decipher what they say.  Some of you probably would not agree with labeling these efforts as art but that is the thing about art, it is in the eye of the beholder. In the last couple of years I have beheld literally hundreds and hundreds of rail cars moving in each direction through here and snapped an untold number of photos.  

It is only recently that I began to analyze the lettering in-depth and eventually realized that they are often not just about artistic license. In many cases there is a message being given, which can be very subtle and woven deep into sophisticated and bizarrely obscure words. Other times they are out right point blank and plain, like for example, a car with the giant word IMPEACH covering the whole side of it.  My first clue as to the fact that these invisible artists are trying to tell us something came from a parked train at Crowsnest siding, on the border. Stopped trains are a lot easier to photograph and I was able to casually wander up the tracks snapping pics of the always varied artwork that day. Part way down the idled train consist I came across the words, The Iron Heel, in giant grey letters on the side of a grain car.  Off to the right side, in smaller accented grey letters, were the words JACK LONDON.  So I wondered to myself then what was this all about? 

On researching this message I discovered that Jack London, author of Call of the Wild, had belonged to a radical literary group in San Francisco in his day and was a passionate advocate for animal rights, workers’ rights and socialism. The Iron Heel is a fictional book whose premise is about the rise of a socialist mass movement in the United States. In the story Conservatives feel alarmed and threatened by this prospect, to the point of seizing power and establishing a brutal dictatorship in order to avert it. Socialism is a topic that seems to bring strong responses from people these days and perhaps the train artist’s intent is to foster discourse about it?  

One of the most magnificent pieces of train lettering I have encountered so far was on an ore car that I chased from Hillcrest to Bushtown to finally capture the image. These are not easy cars to “tag” given there colour and indentations but this “crew” went right over the top creativity-wise to spell out the word “concepticons”.   Here then is the Wikipedia definition of what this word means. A word of warning, it is a bit out there and is definitely not some kind of a mechanical transformer toy. A concepticon is an “open-source online lexical database of linguistic concept lists (word lists).”  What?  It gets worse. Here is what they do, “serving as a rich reference for new and existing databases in diachronic and synchronic linguistics, and it allows researchers a quick access to studies on semantic change, cross-linguistic polysemies, and semantic associations.  Good grief, that is a tad too sophisticated for this boy and probably many of the readers, I dare say.  But perhaps the message is that we all share many commonalities language-wise and should be mindful of that?

As a mentioned earlier, often the lettering is a clue to look further and I find it interesting that these artful text creations are challenging the observer.  I spotted a small tag the other day that led to a double take and of course a quick photo.  The lettering wasn’t very big but the message, “DONOR” was spelled out literally and above the lettering the same message using ASL (American Sign Language) gestures. Rather a creative approach I thought but it isn’t clear to me what the actual message is?  

There is one more remarkable tag from my ever-growing collection that I would like to share and attempt to interpret what I feel is the story behind it.  It is, once again, a spectacular crafting on a grain car, one of the most available car types to taggers. On the side of this particular car, in exotic and colourful lettering, is the word “KHAN”.   Khan can have several meanings, including the title for a Mongolic nomadic tribe leader, i.e. Genghis Khan. Or it can mean an American on-line non-profit educational organization i.e. Khan Academy.  But, and this is the kicker with this car, there is a recognizable cartoon in the top right hand side of the lettering that provides a further clue.

Those of you who, like me, devoured each monthly issue of Mad Magazine, from the 1960’s on, will recognize the character adjacent to the lettering. It is one of two cartoon types, specifically spies that have been featured in a regular strip in the magazine since 1961.  They are one black and one white and are a parody of political ideologies.  I wondered then, what is the message here? 

After some extensive digging this then is my take on this provocative tag. It has to do with a famous World War Two spy by the name of Noor Inayat Khan, codename Madelaine. So the Spy vs Spy character on the railcar is there to encourage the viewer to seek out the story of this remarkable woman who has had several books written about her.   

Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow, the daughter of a Sufi preacher and musician. Sufism is defined as “a mystical Islamic belief”, which probably laid the foundation for her pacifism and determination to always assist the subjugated. After World War 1 broke out the family moved to England where reportedly they were surveilled for their pro-India views and so eventually moved to Paris. When the Germans invaded France in 1940 they fled back to England where Noor, because of her strong moral compass, joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Khan, who was fluent in French, was eventually recruited by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) which was a secret British organization that sent spies to help resistance movements in occupied Europe. 

She was flown back to Paris, after extensive training including night-time parachute jumping, where she took over an incredibly dangerous job as a pianist (radio-telegraph operator) for the underground. Her story is complicated and brutally tragic in that she was eventually caught by the Gestapo and tortured for months before being sent to Dachau Prison and shot along with three other female operatives.  

While in captivity she was treated as an extremely dangerous prisoner. In the profoundly important book I own, titled A Man Called Intrepid, I found the following, written by William Stevenson. It comes from après war testimony of those in charge of torture brutality. She was, “handcuffed and chained day and night in a crouching position so that she depended on male jailers to deal with her sanitary and feeding problems.” She was held in this atrocious manner for ten months but refused to give any information and on September 12th, 1944 was taken to the Dachau crematorium and shot. 

For her valiant efforts, Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest civilian award, in 1949 and the French Croix de Guerre, a military honour awarded by France in 1946.

So, as I have indicated earlier, the messages are moving past us in this way, every day, challenging us to look deeper.  

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