MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to dig into some history for the next few minutes. We're talking Susan B. Anthony, O.J. Simpson. We hope you'll stick around for that.
But we're going to start with some history that's often hiding in plain sight - graffiti, something small, like so-and-so was here. Now, you might not look too closely, but Susan Phillips does. She's an anthropologist, and she studies and writes about graffiti. Back in 2000, she stumbled across some interesting markings under a bridge near the Los Angeles River. They were essentially very old examples of so-and-so was here, dating back to 1914.
But she's recently revealed a new twist - so-and-so in this case might just be one of America's most famous hobos. And Susan Phillips is with us now from our studios at NPR West to tell us more. Professor Phillips, thanks so much for joining us.
SUSAN PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So take me back to when you were walking along the river that day. Do you remember - were you looking for anything in particular?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, a group of friends and I were out exploring, looking for just - you know, 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, a railroad spike dug into the wall, written in grease pencil.
MARTIN: Well, how did you know it was from 1914?
PHILLIPS: Well, back then people used to date their graffiti.
MARTIN: That's interesting. Well, what do you think these guys were trying to tell us with this graffiti? What do you think they're trying to say?
PHILLIPS: 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, very fragilely connected to one another, constantly getting put in jail, constantly on the run - it was way that they had of forming community.
MARTIN: One of the markings that really has gotten a lot of people excited was a marking by somebody called A-No.1. Who is that?
PHILLIPS: A-No.1 is arguably the most famous hobo in the United States. His given name is Leon Ray Livingston. 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
MARTIN: Why do we use the word hobo, by the way? I mean, do we - people - I don't think that's a word people hear very often.
PHILLIPS: They don't hear it anymore.
MARTIN: These days, no.
PHILLIPS: No, people don't use the word hobo 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.
MARTIN: Oh, is that what it means?
MARTIN: Is - does it have the same connotation as we would ascribe to, say, we would say homeless people now. Is it the same thing?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I think that's the way that it started, although there were 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 a little more 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.
MARTIN: Why do you think this matters?
PHILLIPS: 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 that the infrastructure of the city, the walls, the railroad bridges become that history.
And if you know where 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.
MARTIN: Well, Susan Phillips is an anthropologist and associate professor of environmental studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. If you want to read about her discovery, there's an interesting article at smithsonian.com. Susan Phillips, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PHILLIPS: Thank you.
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