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Interview: Tim Conlon's "One Track Mind"

Graffiti // Friday, 06 Jun 2014
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Do you enjoy trains and graffiti or both of them together? If so, Baltimore-based artist, Tim Conlon will be exhibiting life-size aerosol paintings of aged freight cars and weathered model trains featuring scaled-to-size graffiti this Saturday at The Seventh Letter Flagship Store and GalleryWe’ve seen some of Conlon’s paintings in person and his renderings are of the highest quality. The artist’s obsession with freight train graffiti has spanned over twenty years, attracted to the logos, typography and color schemes of freight trains old and new. About this specfic collection of work, Conlon say,”I discovered this art form when I was living in Baltimore and the nationwide freight train graffiti scene was just emerging. Because Baltimore is one of the biggest port cities on the east coast, commercial cargo regularly arrived on large ships in Baltimore Harbor and was then transferred to freight trains headed toward larger cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Train cars were everywhere and, in many ways, served as a revolving art gallery for graffiti and train lovers alike.”

Jeanette Sawyer: How did you get started with train graffiti?
Tim Conlon: I discovered this art form in the early 90s when I was a college student in Baltimore and the nationwide freight train graffiti scene was just emerging. Because Baltimore is one of the biggest port cities on the east coast, commercial cargo regularly arrived on large ships in Baltimore Harbor and was then transferred to freight trains headed toward larger cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Train cars were everywhere and, in many ways, served as a revolving art gallery.

Fast forward to 2008, I was part of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture, which featured four large pieces that resembled old school New York subway graff. In many ways this was the entry point to the work I do now in gallery shows and personal collections. 

Has there been a big appetite for this work?
Yes, I’ve been surprised. I’ve been working on these large-scale canvases and G scale trains for several years and people started to take an interest in them fairly quickly. In 2011, I curated and was featured in the G scale train exhibit in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Art in The Streets. Some pieces have also been shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as a bunch of other shows in galleries across the US and in Europe. This summer I have work in six galleries in various US cities so things have really been ramping up.

Who typically buys your work?
It’s a pretty mixed assortment – fine art collectors, train lovers, graffiti enthusiasts, and people who love the industrial look and feel. One aspect of selling art that I really enjoy is meeting the people who buy the pieces. They come from all walks of life, but the common theme is they sort of universally love old weathered train logos, typography, and bold colors.

What is the technique you use to paint the train canvases?
The pieces are done almost entirely with spray paint. When I started, I wanted to use the skill set I had honed from doing graffiti over the years and apply that to my gallery work. But I didn’t want to just do paintings of graffiti, so with the train canvases I found I could add graffiti elements as a layer. I’ve had a few people tell me when they first looked at a painting that they thought it was a photo of a train printed to canvas with graffiti painted on top. 
The canvases are large because I try to keep them to scale to a real freight train. I start by actually painting a clean version of the train car with the logos, numbers, black boxes, etc. Then the train is “aged” by painting in rust, dents, scratches, holes, and more rust. I’ll add the graffiti and/or buff marks after that and depending on the freight car that I’m doing, the painting may go through a couple more rounds of weathering, highlights and shading. It’s important to build up the layers of spray paint in order to achieve the right effect. Spending countless hours in front of trains has given me a mental library of how these metal giants slowly deteriorate and how they should look on canvas.

What have been your most favorite recent projects?
Last year Norfolk Southern commissioned me to do a large canvas as a surprise gift for their chairman. That was a dream project. More recently, they asked me to do two more large canvases which I’ll work on this summer. 
A few months ago, a collector commissioned me to do several murals at his home in Easthampton, NY. I stayed at his house for several days, got to spend time with him, his wife, and his son, and they made me feel right at home. I enjoyed getting to know a more familial side of my clients’ daily lives.

There’s also this Breaking Bad train somewhere out there right now...

 

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