Skip to content
CityLab
Design

Tracing the 'Hobo Graffiti' of Early 20th Century America

The markings were a secret communication system used by wanderers in the 1910s and 1920s—and represent an important part of American history.
relates to Tracing the 'Hobo Graffiti' of Early 20th Century America
Courtesy of Susan Phillips

Today, graffiti is considered by some to be a legitimate form of artistic expression and creativity. Some make a political statement, while other pieces exist merely to amuse. Think Banksy, or the artist behind this pumping heart graffiti.

But back in the early 20th century, a particular form of graffiti—often referred to as ‘hobo graffiti’—emerged. The execution was much less flashy than the graffiti of today, done with grease pencils rather than spray paint. And it was part of a highly developed communication system among the ‘hobo’ community. (This term was widely used by wanderers at the time to describe their own community, and is used here to reflect the anthropological study of that community’s history during this time period. “Homeless” or “nomadic” are terms we would use today.)