Ah yes! Once again the subject of graffiti and it's controversial status appears now in article form. However, instead of deeply pursuing the ever existing debate of whether it is right or wrong, I will expand more so here on how it can be applied to model freight cars in a realistic manner in 1/87 scale.
If we review graffiti and it's brief history in being associated with railroading, we’ll find that originally it was used by transients to mark their destinations and make their presence known throughout the many hours and miles of travel via rolling stock. You'll find that graffiti in the days of the U.S. depression of the 1930's was nothing more elaborate than simple drawings done in chalk above the boxcar door tracks and along the lower car body sill. The small chalk "tag" was a way for the transient or hobo of yesteryear to denote an air of dominance within certain railroading regions or for the most part his expeditions. Nationwide, many names became famous throughout the decades from being scribbled upon railcars. Any historical rail fan can tell you that names such as Herbie, with his signature sombrero-ed man resting in slumber against a palm tree, was one of the most recognized chalk tags. So were names like Bozo Texino, Big Al and many others. These names became a common sight upon trains throughout the early years up into the latter 1970's. ( I can personally account for seeing these small scribbles back in my early years of rail fanning. Especially, the Herbie tag. It always amazed me how many trains I saw pass by with this particular name written on not just one but numerous cars within a long manifest.) These small chalk graffiti drawings would soon evaporate into hobo jungles and railroading archives at the dawn of the 1980's. This was the decade when graffiti would take on drastic changes.
Sadly, the now historic chalk drawings by some of the earlier rail tramps have been long plastered over and are rarely seen. During this new decade spray paint graffiti artists would emerge. This new era saw drastic changes in style and reason behind the applications of contemporary artists. From the mid 1980's until the present, graffiti has literally exploded into a rolling media by some extremely talented "rattle can" Picasso's.
Without delving too deeply into that age old debate, I used to view graffiti as an act of destruction and blatant disrespect to private property. Which, lawfully speaking, it should be strictly construed as such. However, with lax railroad security, these cars are getting worked on by some very talented artists. Legacies are being forged through these prersonal stamps of expression. When the day finally dawns on the absolute abolishment of graffiti, it will become historical. So yes, I personally view some of it as master works of art, regardless of each tags personal significance. Therefore, I have embarked on a journey for the past two years to replicate in my weathered model freight cars all the glory of what contemporary graffiti has become.
With history and views being pretty well covered, I will now spend the rest of this article describing what methods I use to replicate my model freight cars. I have been approached many times in weathering forums and in written correspondence by people asking how I apply realistic looking graffiti to my models. I have no issues with sharing with others the techniques of how I exact the numerous tags to my cars.
I will begin by covering what medium I prefer. The first thing I must say is, LOSE THE GEL PENS PEOPLE!!! These pens, though convenient, are nothing more than a quick shortcut to creating a tag! Most prototype railcar tags have been on the car for a period of time and most of them lack the fresh painted look you get with these pens. This is very, very important to keep in mind. Gel pens do nothing more than give the tag an unrealistic look. The paint in these pens is too vibrant. You're going to want to weather your finished tag to some degree and I feel this is a good mindset to get into before you get started.
Personally, I prefer working from prototype railcar photos. I want a 100% realistic looking car so why would I not want a 100% realistic looking tag? I've seen many model weatherers do this; create a beautifully weathered prototype model and then botch the entire car by applying decal tags or worse, using gel pens, sharpie markers or other quick method forms of pens....I’ll reiterate it now!...LOSE THE PENS!
Some of you may want to draw the outline of the tag on your model with a pencil first. This is okay but be advised, this method, when used with water based acrylics or any other water based paint may cause the pencil lead to bleed into the tag. Especially if it is a light colored tag. I prefer to just freehand my tags. Starting at the model's extreme left, I will visually find certain characteristics on the model to use as guides and as parallels to work the tag from left to right. For instance, if there is a certain number in the reporting mark on the prototype and the model and if a certain part of the tag I'm replicating lines up on that particular number, I can assure that my tag is correctly being applied.
Next comes the application of the paint. I prefer cheap acrylics. I say this because these small bottles of paint come in a plethora of colors. They are inexpensive and easy to find in retail stores. Plus they are water soluble, are forgiving of mistakes and can be manipulated and blended well. That being said, I advise those who wish to do tags as I do to not start by layering the paint. What I'm referring to here is that some prefer to draw the outline of the tag first and then fill it in completely with a base color. White, mostly. This might be okay, but what I try to avoid is the un-necessary build up of layered paint. Whether it is thinned or not, there will be another layer of color applied over the white and the multi layering gives way to an unrealistic, lumpy looking graffiti. I prefer to mix my colors on a pallet before applying the base color. For instance, if a tags color is generally a sea foam green, then I will look through my colors for a suitable starting color and puddle a few drops on the pallet and then grab another color to mix into the initial green. Then add until the correct color has come to surface. A quick note: never use stark plain colors directly from the bottles,...this tends to give you a, well,..stark, unrealistic tag. Take black for instance, it's too bold! I never use "just black"! It doesn’t look right. It gives the tag a cartoon look to it, I feel. I will always mix a slight bit of charcoal gray into the black to soften it and tone it down. Use mixed colors for the principal tag and then off-whites and solid colors can be used for drop shadows and tag outlines.
Once the initial tag has been applied to the car, I always fix it with a misting of dull-cote. Then I can start with the tag details after the dc has dried. I'm referring here to shadows of different colors or borders or small scribbles. To achieve the spray can look on these scribbles and borders, just add water to the color you're using to create a very diluted wash of paint. This can be puddled on a pallet and then picked up with a fine, soft haired brush. I always use soft brushes on my tags so I leave no brush marks. I am striving for a spray painted look. I also use micro washes around the existing borders or scribbles to apply a miniscule amount of diluted wash around the area of the hard line of my tag and brush it around and away from this main hard line. This will give you the over spray look common with most aerosol cans. Be sure to mist again with dc after it dries to preserve the micro-work done.
For these micro scribbles and details I use the smallest, finest detailing brush in my arsenal and I will then bring the soft haired brush to an extreme fine tip by wetting the bristles with saliva. I know, sounds weird, but it works to get those ultra fine lines and borders to a perfect preciseness. Believe it or not, it is these small details that bring the tags to life and bring them within the realism of their prototype counterparts. In fact, these small scribbles, border work, drop shadows and blended colors are the true essence of the realistic tag.
With the tag at it's completion, it's time for one final step that will insure a realistic look to the graffiti. This last technique requires little in the way of effort. I put a small dab of charcoal gray acrylic on my pallet again and take a wider brush than the fine detailing brush I used prior for fine lines. I pick up quite a bit of water and add it to the charcoal gray acrylic. This creates a very watery mix of paint. Next, I pick up a bit of this mix (very little ) on my brush and I give the entire tag a once over with the brush of dilluted, acrylic charcoal gray. This basically dirties up the graffiti a bit and tends to blend it into the rest the car so it does not appear to have been freshly painted on and gives it an air of road grime. Make sure this final step is done only after the graffiti has been sealed with dull-cote.
Creating realistic looking graffiti on our models can be challenging and fun. It can result in the enhancement of our prototype or fantasy model freight car creations if done with care, the proper materials and precision. I can only suggest these methods I use. Just remember the model is yours to do with whatever you wish and art is the liberty to express oneself in any way they wish. These aforementioned procedures and techniques that I share are not to be taken as gospel but rather a helpful instrument to zero in a more "true to life" looking graffiti. I would be glad to further share techniques & advice personally. Just contact me through the appropriate channels with the contact bar at www.theweatheringshop.com