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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Bozo Texino

by Clay Coppedge
The question has been asked many times and in many forms: “Who is Bozo Texino?”

We have to assume that people have been asking that question since the late 1920s, when Bozo Texino burst upon the art scene, provided we’re willing to make room for railroad boxcar graffiti in our art scene.
Bozo Texino railroad boxcar graffiti
Bozo Texino. TE photo
And why shouldn’t we do just that? Media critic Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” This Bozo Texino character got away with his art for the better part of at least two decades and left countless imitators in his wake. Patrons of urban art scenes may wrinkle their nose at Bozo but his art has enjoyed an audience most artists can only dream about.

Before there was the famous smiley face of the 1970s, which urged all of us to “Have a Nice Day,” and even before Kilroy, the hero of World War II graffiti made famous by a distinctive drawing and the words “Kilroy Was Here,” there was Bozo Texino.

Bozo Texino was the signature assigned to several thousand doodles drawn on railroad boxcars with a waterproof crayon. The signature featured a character with a big, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a pipe, a scowl, and the words “Bozo Texino.” Bozo Texino’s art was always on tour, carrying trainloads of art everywhere the rails ran. People in Maine were as likely to see one of Bozo’s drawings as people in California or Michigan.

So who was Bozo Texino?

Not too surprisingly, Bozo Texino was not the artist’s real name. The drawings and the distinctive signature were the work of one J.H. McKinley of San Antonio, a fireman for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. (It’s said that McKinley did not ply his trade on Missouri-Pacific rail cars because company policy forbade it, but the company apparently didn’t mind McKinley doodling on competitors’ boxcars.)

Bozo’s identity wasn’t exactly a secret. McKinley even wrote a humor column called “Bozo Texino Sez” for Missouri-Pacific magazine. Gene Fowler, in his book “Mavericks,” quotes a 1939 interview with the San Antonio Light where McKinley told a reporter that a nephew nicknamed him Bo when the two worked together in Laredo.

“I just took the ‘Bo’ and added a ‘zo,’ so it would rhyme with Laredo,” McKinley said. “I used to sign it ‘Bozo Laredo’ until I came to San Antonio, then kind of shortened Texas and Mexico to get ‘Texino.’”
The most notable attention paid to our very own Bozo comes from filmmaker Bill Daniel, who spent 16 years hopping freights and riding the rails to make the documentary film “Who Is Bozo Texino?” Daniel answers the title’s question but not to everybody’s satisfaction because to some people the mystery of Bozo Texino might be more important than his true identity.

For Daniel, the mystery began when he saw his first Bozo Texino image in a Dallas rail yard. Then he saw another one, and another. He saw Bozo Texino in Fort Worth and Houston. Bozos were everywhere.
DVD
“I figured I discovered some kind of secret hobo art movement,” he told the Fort Worth Star Telegram in 2006, just after the movie was released. “It was stuff that looked to be a full-on underground art scene, a boxcar graffiti cult with hundreds of characters…At first I thought it was hobo art, but it turned out they were done by both railroad workers and hobos.”

A bonus to delving into the murky sub-culture of hobos and railroad graffiti is the great nicknames. Some examples: Frisco Jack, Big Red, Pal Tree Herbie, Mojave Don, Coal Train, Road Hog, Itchyfoot Stetson and Water Bed Lou.

Others have signed their boxcar graffiti “Bozo Texino” in subsequent decades. Bozo has even spawned what could be classified as a sub-genre of artists who go by the names Bozo Mexino, Bozo Bambino and Bozo Texina.

If nothing else, the names could inspire any number of musicians who might otherwise believe that all the good stage names have been taken. A concert by a band or performer named Bozo Texino with opening act Itchyfoot Stetson would probably draw a certain number of fans based on the names alone.


© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 2, 2009 Column

Related Topics: People | Railroad Graffiti
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