ICHABOD’s is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for several years now. I present it here: words by me, photos by various friends of the artist. By the way: I’m not ICHABOD and I very rarely facilitate contact between him and others. – Caleb Neelon,
ICHABOD is a master of American freight train graffiti: prolific, durable, and consistent. In a game where thousands of graffiti writers compete to make their names as densely distributed as possible throughout the nearly two million freight cars across North America, ICH has been among the very best and most successful. Ceaselessly repeating his ultra-legible signature piece, he makes two things as likely as can be in graffiti: that his name will be rolling on every train in North America, and that you, me, and anyone else will be able to read it.
“The appeal of a freight train for me was obvious from the start, because I was fascinated with freight trains before I started writing,” ICHABOD – or ICH, for short – explains. “Most people want to write their name in the sense of ‘Kilroy Was Here,’ that ‘I was here, at this geographical location.’ If you paint a tag or a burner on a wall, it’s partly you saying ‘I was here,’ but partly, people have to go to see it, it’s one location. But freights, freights are moving walls. When you paint a freight, you never know where it will end up: alongside a highway in a very prominent spot in a downtown area, or in a cornfield in Nebraska. I’ve done freights where the Atlantic Ocean was at my back while I was painting them, since the layup was right on the water, and those trains have gone and seen the Pacific Ocean and been parked next to the Pacific.”
Those sentiments and experiences are hardly unique to ICHABOD: they encapsulate much of the essential appeal of painting freight trains, an activity with thousands of practitioners across the continent. And like the top tier of practitioners of freight train graffiti, ICH researched the United States rail system with the passion of the most serious railfan: he learned which types of cars are most likely to travel the most widely, and which will only run back and forth on a defined route. He learned which types of cars look best when painted, and based on the customers they served, where he might find them laid up on nights and weekends. And he learned how to sustain his painting spots by secrecy, strategy, and the rigorous discouragement of uninvited graffiti writers.
While mastering the rail system and how to scatter one’s name on it most effectively was also not unique to ICHABOD among seasoned train painters, he dove in as deeply as anyone. What separated him was his willingness to paint what was essentially the same piece – an I, C, H, with each at an angle to one another (what graffiti writers call a ‘tick-tock’) with a skull character next to it – more than 3,000 times and counting. (Graffiti writers are often exaggerators, but a look through the ICHABOD flickr group will dispel a lot of doubt one might have with regard to that number). Where many of his peers would get creatively itchy and break their own mold with regularity, ICH never tired of it. “It fits the master plan,” he explains. “I can’t count the number of people who want to get famous by doing graffiti, but who change their style every week or every time they go out. First of all, a lot of writers won’t even know that it’s the same person, and certainly the general public can’t tell that it’s the same person. But it’s simple: it’s brand recognition. Coca-Cola doesn’t go changing its logo every week. You want to get inside people’s brains and burn that one spot, over and over. Especially considering that you’ll only go so far in illegal activity before you get caught. There’s a clock running. You don’t want to have to retire before you made the dent you wanted to make. And how can you make that dent if you aren’t using repetition as one of your tools?”