Parallel Rails: ICHABOD

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. – Caleb

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?”

While ICHABOD’s friends certainly admired the effort and dedication he put in, more than a few were wondering about him. He wasn’t a socially fluid guy, even among graffiti writers, didn’t work a job like every other schmuck, and lived on hardly any money. He had begun to write graffiti not as a teenager, but at the ripe old age of 27, and took it on with the same intensity which he had previously attacked his other niche interests like chemical classification systems and certain popular strategy-based board games. Doing the same piece forever was just one part of it: while socially awkward and brilliant-but-terrible-at-school, can’t-seem-to-work-a-regular-job, living-on-no-money artists and graffiti writers are nothing new, there was something different about ICHABOD as a person. His friends knew it, and he knew it, too.

In late 2007, ICHABOD was sitting in a friend’s living room with time to pass, and from a side table picked up a copy of the August 20 New Yorker. He began reading an article by Tim Page, called Parallel Play. “In the years since the phrase became a cliché,” Page wrote, “I have received any number of compliments for my supposed ability to ‘think outside the box.’ Actually, it has been a struggle for me to perceive just what these ‘boxes’ were—why they were there, why other people regarded them as important, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them.”

ICHABOD was hooked. “Whatever the case,” Page went on, “while my younger brother and sister soared through school, academically and socially, I was consistently at or near the bottom of the class, and decidedly out of control—half asleep or aggressively assertive—much of the time.” Then came the kicker: “Meanwhile, the more kindly homeroom teachers, knowing that I would be tormented on the playground, permitted me to spend recess periods indoors, where I memorized vast portions of the 1961 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia.”

Tim Page’s New Yorker article was about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that manifests in difficulties with social interactions as well as narrow, specific interests and repetitive patterns of behavior. At age 38, ICHABOD had never heard of Asperger’s, and it was a revelation. “Immediately,” he describes, “all the things that I’ve done in my life, both the foibles and the focuses and interests, all were right there. They just leapt into my understanding of where I fit in here. The author was inside at recess memorizing the encyclopedia – which is an intellectual feat – but he’s flunking his courses because they don’t interest him. That was my whole academic career right there.”

He began to research the features of Asperger’s, and saw himself again and again in the descriptions. And he found one key facet that made his experience in school and as an adult trying to sustain employment, so difficult. “The thing with Asperger’s is the type of functional ability called executive function,” he says. “In the brain, it’s sort of the ‘get up and go.’ I can overthink anything into the ground for hours. I can even come up with a good plan, and even come up with a list of sub-goals, but to get up out of the chair and perform sub-goal number one is where I fall apart, and that’s where a lot of Aspies [term used among people with Asperger’s] fall apart.” Indeed, most people who don’t have Asperger’s wouldn’t really even ever think of things in terms of goals and ‘sub-goals,’ they’d just do them, in the same way most of us can plod along through a job, a small-talk conversation, a homework assignment, or a host of other tasks that ultimately point us in the general direction of a secure future.

And what we non-Asperger’s individuals are fortunate to have, ICH describes, is “the discipline to just muddle through.” He continues: “That’s something I lack. I have no interest in muddling; I will simply abandon something that does not serve my purposes. And that’s why I’ve struggled to stay employed my whole life, because I’ve never found a job that had anything to do with my interests – and of course my interests aren’t the kind that pay well, even if you’re good at them.” Those interests were another key trait of Asperger’s – deep, sustained, years-long fascinations with very narrow, sometimes impractical topics. Someone with Asperger’s might have all of the specifications of every camera lens memorized, yet not be interested in the least in photography, or learn the molecular structure of every chemical, with no interest in chemistry as a whole. And when faced with a small-talk situation, they may abruptly steer that conversation into a monologue on one of their narrow interests.

“Why do I like chess so much? Why do I like to write? Why do I like to play guitar?” he asks of himself. “It’s almost like, ‘why does anyone find their niche?’ You try a bunch of things, you find some you like and some you find boring, that don’t do anything in your brain. I’ve found several different interests that really sparked something in my brain. And once that spark went off, I put my gloves on and really got to work at getting good at that thing.”

But what’s gotten ICHABOD to work, regrettably, hasn’t transferred over into a way to sustain himself. “Everybody has their hobbies and passions and what gets them out of bed in the morning,” he admits, “and it seems to me to be a great coincidental thing that none of the things that have sparked my interest have a parallel lucrative field.” And while those interests might run quite deeply, they can be a bit of a prison. Stepping outside of them is extremely difficult. Coupled with that inability to ‘muddle through,’ Asperger’s has made many of the visible yardsticks of personal value – success in education, steady and gainful employment, social ease – a tremendous struggle. Charges of being stupid, lazy, and weird follow all too easily.

Well away from an educational setting, ICHABOD is no longer in a place where people have reason to question his intelligence. And if people think of him as a weirdo, well, let’s just say that his friends would chuckle and say he has a bit of fun cultivating that image. But ‘lazy’ bugs him. “I’ve endured plenty of people calling me lazy,” he says, curtly. “They haven’t seen me spend twelve hours painting a whole car. Getting my arches busted up from climbing on a ladder all day, all while under threat of discovery. I go out a couple of times a week. It takes effort. I do a lot of walking. I walk miles, a lot of it on railroad tracks or in questionable neighborhoods. I do a lot of physical toil to achieve my ends – so I’m not lazy. Lazy is not riding five miles on a bike with thirty cans of paint. It’s toil that I’ll take on.” But when it came to working a regular job, he concedes: “But if someone wants to pay me to scrape paint off a house, I might not last until the first lunch break. It’s not my house, job, or project. I don’t care. I have no interest in being there. It has nothing to do with what I’m interested in or want to accomplish.”

But in those descriptions of the features of Asperger’s came some revelations not only about what had made functioning in his day-to-day life so unusually difficult, but what made him so very, astonishingly good at freight train graffiti. It wasn’t just that learning the ins and outs of the North American rail system had become one of his interests, such that he had no problem applying his capacious ability for research into an area with direct benefit. There was also a peculiar physical component to it.

“One thing that Aspies will tell you about is habituation,” he explains, “Once you’ve gotten pleasure out of a specific thing or way of doing things, you can keep going out and keep doing that thing over and over and over again and still get pleasure out of it, even though you are doing the same thing the same way. I can get loyal to the same restaurant, sit in the same seat, eat the same meal, couple of times a week, for years, and I still love it, relish it, look forward to going. That is an Asperger’s feature, and I believe is one of the reasons why Aspies have these focuses that they are really obsessed about. It’s a matter of their brain finding something that was pleasurable and successful. This worked before, or we liked this, let’s do it again. It becomes self-reinforcing, and a habit, so you keep going out and doing it because you enjoy it.”

Not only did freight train graffiti click for ICHABOD, there was also something about the ceaseless repetition of what is essentially the same piece. “I never get tired of it,” he says, even though he has painted upwards of 3,000 of them, sometimes five or ten in a day. “I have yet to get tired of it.” While the colors and the freight cars change, it’s fundamentally the same image again and again. It’s a combination of plainly readable text and a memorable mascot skull character that has made him – it’s hard to think of a more fitting candidate – the freight train graffiti writer most recognized by the general public in North America.

But making the leap from being a subcultural art hero to sustaining himself as an artist has been especially difficult, even at a time such as now when there is so much interest in such artists. Stepping outside of that narrow interest to make the saleable widgets and carry through the workaday routine of a professional artist quickly runs into that same Asperger’s wall. “Motivating myself is very, very difficult, even as an artist – and I enjoy making art. I have tons of great ideas, my mind is constantly coming up with interesting things, but to follow through on those, to execute them – again, we’re back to executive function – it’s just too much effort. Everything in life is like too much work – that’s how I feel all the time about anything. And I’ve never been able to motivate myself or find the motivation in any kind of artificial reward system, because if I’m the rewarder, I’ll never deny myself the reward, and if I’m the punisher, I’ll never punish myself. I’ll fail at my goal, or to even work at it, and then reward myself – whatever I was promising myself, I’ll just go do that instead.”

“That makes graffiti especially attractive, because there is the pressure of being arrested for not completing your work on time! If I decide that I’m going to take a spot, whether it’s a fill in or a piece or a large freight train project, I could be discovered, chased, and arrested at any time for what I’m doing. And that is a powerful enough motivator for me to finish within a few moments, an hour, or that day. It’s the only realm where I’m very productive, because of that very serious, high-explosive, high-caliber motivator. Graffiti is an example of where I have been able to formulate a plan and stick to the sub-goals.” Here, he describes the strategic appeal of freight trains. “If you paint in a city, you eventually burn out your walls. There are certain spots you can paint where you can get over without the authorities busting you, and there are famous spots that have been bombed and buffed and bombed again. You can only do the same hundred walls so many times. But you go to the freight yard, and there’s something like 1.8 million freight cars out there, always moving and shifting around. You can paint one night, and the next day all of those cars have left and a new set has arrived. You may be standing in the same spot as you painted the night before, literally standing on top of your footsteps from the night before, but you’re painting a new surface, and one that will be replaced.”

That approach, driven in part by a desire to get the maximum impact from each can of paint he uses – the maximum ‘play,’ as he calls it – has worked well for ICHABOD. In a train yard with fifty cars in it, he’ll paint the five that he knows will circulate most widely, a strategy he’s borne out by extensively tracking certain types of freight cars through the system, using their alphanumeric codes, just like the freight companies do. And while by now he’s painted alongside many of graffiti’s greats, he’s just as likely to be out by himself.

“I never accept following the herd as the reason why I should do something, I need reasons for everything. I’m not sure why I am on this planet, I’m not sure why I am a living, breathing being, I don’t have any religious affiliation or spiritual feelings other than being awed by looking up at the stars and thinking about how big the universe is. I get a sort of spiritual vibe out of nature, in that sense, a sense of wonderment. I don’t subscribe to a religion. I see nothing in the fairy tales and stories that seem to be the basis for most organized religions.”

“It’s not good enough for me that 90% of the population sets an alarm and gets up at 7 o’clock in the morning, and if you’re a guy, scrape the hair off your face with a sharp knife, because that makes you presentable. I don’t know what that is. It’s a custom as bizarre to me as throwing the ashes of dead people in the Ganges River because Vishnu or whatever is going to bless them. All that stuff is bizarre to me. It doesn’t have a reason, other than that’s what people have been doing for years. None of that stuff makes sense to me, there isn’t a reason. I eat food because if I don’t, I’ll starve: good reason.”

“I live in a sophisticated society, a capitalist society. The survival aspect is obscured. Everything people do for employment seems very indirect. You rent yourself out as a worker drone to someone for barterable coin that can be exchanged for goods and services that you need. It’s very alien to me. And a lot of Aspies feel like they’re from another planet and have been put in an alien world where they have to learn all of these bizarre rituals and customs just to get through the day – and they don’t seem to have much to do with finding enough to eat or shelter from the rain, finding a mate.”

“One of the reasons that I do graffiti is to see it again later. Before I did graffiti, I felt lost in a sea of humans. Or sheep, as the case may be. But to do graffiti and come back to the spot, or especially to go to a different part of the country and see one of my freights roll by, it definitely is a reminder that I exist. I am here, I made a dent, I actually changed the environment in a slight way. And that change is still in effect. It is a confirmation that I exist. I don’t know that that addresses the word faith, but I think that’s close a rationale to why I do what I do.”