Railroad Graffiti (History, Types, and Use in Model Trains)

December 13, 2022

Railroad Graffiti (History, Types, and Use in Model Trains)

Train graffiti has been around for decades and is still as prevalent today as it is dangerous. While some might argue about whether graffiti is vandalism or an artistic wonder, there’s no denying that the art form has become a part of the railroad industry. 

When did graffiti on trains start, and how can you use it in your model railway?


History of Railroad Graffiti

A picture of graffiti on a train

Early forms of railroad graffiti date back to the early 1900s, during the Great Depression. People traveling the country looking for work would catch rides on passing freight trains and mark their presence with chalk drawings on the inside and outside of the cars. 

While we don’t have exact records of when modern-style railroad graffiti began, one of the commonly mentioned origins of street art was the New York Subway in the 60s and 70s. Unemployment rates were high, the manufacturing industry was collapsing, and the city was at the center of a major national recession. 

During this period, young artists found entertainment in writing their names on subway cars. The graffiti gradually transformed into alias tags, murals, and monikers. As graffiti became more popular, artists began covering the inside and outside of train cars with distinct and unique symbols. 

As graffiti culture grew, so did the public outcry against it. The growing opposition forced the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to switch to stainless steel construction, which ended graffiti on trains by the early 1990s. 

Modern Railroad Graffiti

Full side train graffiti

Though putting graffiti on a train is illegal and dangerous, there are still many railroad cars with graffiti—both new and old. Artists progressed from tagging and creating cool pictures to using their art as a way of providing social and political commentary. 

Spooky boxcar graffiti

Some people think of painted trains as portable museums that carry art and history across the country. There is also a growing number of legal graffiti walls where artists can share their work without fear of prosecution. 


Update Your Model Trains with Graffiti


Model train boxcar graffiti

Graffiti can bring life to your model trains and connect your set to the rich history of American railways. Whether you love it or hate it, graffiti is necessary if you want to accurately portray the real world.

As spray paint ranges have expanded, railway art has become more colorful and detailed. There are several ways to add graffiti to your model, so find the method that works best for you.

HO scale model train graffiti

Drawing Your Train Graffiti

If you want to design your own art, find a few model paint colors to work with and follow the process below. 

  1. Practice with a pencil. Don’t start with anything permanent; take a few minutes practicing with a pencil and erasing any mistakes. If you want to use letters, write your word regularly and then balloon the letters so they overlap. 
  2. Erase and add color. Rub out the pencil and follow your design with ink. Be careful not to let any two colors overlap unless you want to create a third. 
  3. Add brightness. If you want to add extra contrast, spray over your graffiti with white paint. Then, draw on the white area like paper. This will help retain brightness and add white highlights to your graffiti.

Experiment with different colors, lettering, and styling methods. You may also decide to reference real-life examples for inspiration.

Using Graffiti Decal Sets

If you prefer a simpler approach to decorating your railway, pre-made accessories are the answer.

Our graffiti decal sets cover a variety of color schemes and styles. To apply your graffiti on the train, pick your favorite pack, trim the signs with scissors or a hobby knife, and stick it to your model. If you have a darker-colored model, make sure to color the application area white, so the white areas of art appear.

You can also purchase our model trains with pre-painted graffiti for greater convenience.

Shop Model Train Equipment at TrainLife

TrainLife is your one-stop shop for model trains, accessories, scene-setting pieces, construction supplies, and more. With pieces for any scale or model size, there are no limits on how to build your model. 

Take your model to the next level with train graffiti from TrainLife!


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