Walled in by concrete for nearly 80 years, the LA River is many things—”ugly” and “mostly dry” being some of the most commonly-used descriptors. Even so, many might be surprised to learn that the river is also a veritable gold mine of urban archaeological artifacts. That’s how anthropologist Susan Phillips sees it, anyway. As the Associated Press reports (via KPCC), Phillips has found numerous examples of well-preserved, century-old “hobo graffiti” just above the industrialized riverbed.
These drawings and writings are located under a bridge described in the article only as “nondescript,” though close examination of the photos leads us to believe this is the San Fernando Road bridge (which technically crosses the Arroyo-Seco Channel just before it meets the LA River). Mostly, they are the signatures of hoboes passing through Southern California, identifying themselves with monikers like “Oakland Red” and “Kid Bill.” There are a few illustrations as well, such as a bucking bronco that seems to be the work of the “Tuscon Kid.”
The most prized finding, however, is the signature of A-No. 1, otherwise known as Leon Ray Livingston. Livingston is sometimes referred to as the “King of the Hoboes,” and was the author of several books about the hobo way of life. He is also often credited with helping to create and popularize the use of a symbols system alerting other travelers to possible dangers or rewards on the road ahead. In the message Livingston seems to have written beneath the bridge, he signifies that on August 13, 1914 (just a year after the bridge was constructed), he headed up river in the direction of Griffith Park.
— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) May 31, 2016
How has the graffiti lasted so long? Interestingly, one reason is the channelization of the LA River and its tributaries. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a concrete riverbed for the LA River in 1938, the river was actually lowered to prevent future flooding. Many bridges, however, remained intact. Thus, the etchings came to be more than 20 feet off the ground—inaccessible to graffiti-averse city officials and generations of future taggers.
Phillips, who has previously written a book about the use of graffiti by the gangs of Los Angeles, is looking into ways to preserve these historic markings. Still, she acknowledges the inherently ephemeral nature of the writings and drawings she studies. “A lot of the stuff I’ve documented through time has been destroyed, either by the city or by other graffiti writers, and that is just the way of graffiti,” she tells the AP.
— 89.3 KPCC (@KPCC) May 31, 2016