America's Ogre of Train Bombing

You don't know about NITTY GRITTY in your city?

In a converted stand-alone garage in the backyard of a midtown Phoenix home, an artist saunters in to his 20-year retrospective exhibition. The exterior of the garage-cum-gallery is painted eclectically in hundreds of exploding colors by the artist -- an eerily omniscient eyeball, a village of leaning buildings, three-dimensional arrows pointing every conceivable direction, and intricate Tetris-like simulated miniature brickwork climbing up the walls, all arrogantly defying the rules of geometry. Inside, painters from Los Angeles, Tucson, Pittsburgh and the Valley hang in various states of animation and repose, present to pay their respects to a body of work that spans most of their lifetimes.

The artist enters the space decked out in a white button-up shirt, black double-breasted suit, black tie with silver tie clip, black Kangol hat, old-school white Adidas shell toe sneakers, blocky square-rimmed glasses, his dark red hair greased like a postmodern pompadour, wallet chain banging against his pants as he ambulates into the melee of reverent fans. On one finger is a gaudy gold ring with a large purple stone, possibly amethyst. He walks across the room, raises the hand with the ring, and rattles off a dubious history.

"This ring was given to me by a really loud, obnoxious guy who was always drunk and smokes crack. He's also the son of somebody famous, but who cares? He breaks into jewelry stores and museums for a living, and who knows where it came from? This might've been Louis XIII's or something. Or Madame Butterfly's."

Kaper surveys a wall of his paintings at a recent exhibition.
Kaper surveys a wall of his paintings at a recent exhibition.

He takes a hearty gulp of his beer, surveys the gathered crowd, and contemplates the aesthetics of the hanging paintings and their placement. On the gallery's walls, his paintings are hung in chronological order, from 1982 to present; there are photo albums sitting on a table filled with pictures of his work, as well as fanzine covers he drew in the early years of his endeavors. This exhibition (none of the paintings are for sale) is representing and celebrating only one of his mediums. Missing are the acclaimed apocalyptic sculptures he welds from iron, steel and aluminum, as well as his furniture compositions and clothing designs.

His wife is all smiles as she unveils the cake celebrating the 20th birthday of his habit, decorated by a fellow artist and close friend of her husband. Their two small children, ages 6 and 3, are in the care of relatives for the evening, one of the last sultry nights of the Phoenix summer.

As the crowd's reverence is morphing into intoxication, the artist approaches the DJ manning the twin Technics turntables at the end of the room. He asks to hear some old-school hip-hop, something in the vein of Run-D.M.C. The DJ nods acquiescence, though old-school jams never surface. Arranged in front of the turntables like a retaining wall is the artist's cherished collection of vintage Krylon spray paint cans, all of them obsolete colors no longer in production. There's a paper-wrapped (as opposed to screen-printed) can of Jungle Green. There is Glowing Cerise. There is Taupe, Spanish Brown, Bonfire, Avocado and Brick. There is Metallic Blue. On the wall to the left of the DJ's makeshift booth, one of the artist's 1993 paintings threatens to assault its audience -- a super-size hand gripping a can of spray paint with forefinger on the nozzle, aimed at face-level. These are the iconography of his secret life as an artist.

The artist who calls himself Kaper has a heart that pumps graffiti and freight trains. He is maniacally obsessive with his reverence for boxcars and the art of spray-painting them.

Kaper traces the journeys of the pieces he paints on the sides of freight trains using the Internet and railway timetables. He knows the trains that will be immediately repainted or buffed, and avoids them. He knows which lines are short regional hops, and avoids these as well -- the goal is fame, name recognition in all points of the worldwide subculture of freight painting; Kaper doesn't care if some kid in Safford sees his pieces. He knows that the gray Illinois Central cars are often leased by the United States Army, and stays far away from them. He knows that the law requires that train cars' serial numbers must be visible, and sensibly avoids going over them. He knows how to hydraulically drop a boxcar so that the upper portions of its façade can be reached, to paint a "top to bottom." He has traced his pieces' travels to the south of Mexico and far above the Canadian border. "I love to hear about people who see my stuff, my friends that see it in different states," he says.

Kaper watches for Southern Pacific boxcars, targeted for their rarity since Union Pacific bought out the line. He's schooled in the lore of the rails; he can tell you which car to hop on a long line (the second of the three engines, the slave engine, which is empty and has a toilet, possibly a telephone). He studies the hobo and train-worker graffiti, and can tell you stories about Herbie (R.I.P.), Waterbed Lou (R.I.P.), The Solo Artist, John Easley, and the Rambler.

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