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Painted Trains, Trams & Cars

Graffiti painted trains was the classic format of 1980s and 90s but are there any connection to the Russian painted Agitprop train of 1919? The Agitprop train (“agitprop” a portmanteau word combining agitation and propaganda) was sent out to announce the revolution across Russia; its painted carriages were a demonstration of what the future would be like. (There is a 1919 film about the Agitprop trains on YouTube.)

Flinders Street with painted train

I know that some hardcore aerosol graffiti writers would like to see a connection between this but I’m not sure. It is not as if graffiti writers have the patent on painting trains. The intention of all these officially decorated modes of trains is to enhance its prestige and attraction whereas the graffiti writers are painting for their own reasons.

In the age of railway, trains were often decorated, most frequently in patriotic flags, or specially painted. The Americans had a “Freedom Train” in 1947 painted red, white and blue. France’s president, Charles De Gaulle’ had a private gold and silver decorated train. As well as politicians, circus animal also travelled in brightly painted and decorated railway cars; the brightly painted cages were as part of the attraction.

I am reliably informed that trains are still being painted in Melbourne but I haven’t seen that many in the past years but then I’m not spending a lot of time hanging out on railway platforms where multiple train lines are visible. The war between the railways and the graff writers continues – like all wars the results are often ugly and a peaceful resolution appears impossible.

Melbourne had 40 painted trams in service from 1978 until 1993. It was called “The Transporting Art project” and begun by the Ministry of the Arts under then Premier Rupert Hamer. The artists who painted trams the include: Howard Arkley, Mike Brown, Michael Leunig, Mirka Mora, John Nixon, Clifton Pugh, David Larwill and Lin Onus. (St. Kilda Historical Society has an essay by Joan Auld on Mirka Mora’s tram.) Melbourne needs to revive this art project instead of selling the trams bodies for advertising space.

In 1993 Qantas went bigger and several aircraft painted by aboriginal artists. When will we see the first aeroplane painted by a notable street artist?

Painted Van in Melbourne

I try to photograph all the painted cars, vans and trucks that I see, there aren’t many on the road. (For more pictures see my blog post about Automotive Graffiti.) The hippy tradition of a painted van that started with Ken Keasey’s psychedelic painted bus, “Further” remains a hippy tradition. As a culture we need to ask why are people in Indian and SE Asia happy to decorate their vehicles when the wealthier Westerners don’t? Is the re-sale value more important than the personalisation?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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