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City Folk

Bob The Sweep

Bob Selsor documents rail-yard graffiti and connects with his family history

Photo: Charles Cohen, License: N/A

Charles Cohen


You might have seen Bob Selsor up on the railroad trestle, a silhouette standing out against the oyster-mud sky as the worn reefer cars go rumbling by. But here he is, coming into focus like some rare bird as he slinks down the coal-dirt hill, wearing all black, a ratty hoodie, and a wallet chain. But the grease rag in his back pocket and the comfort with which he walks across this eerie driveway behind an abandoned gas station mark him as something other than your average hipster flaunting his working-man garb.

Selsor, 32, has earned every stain and tatter in his ragged clothes. He worked as a chimney sweep for a decade until he got laid off in 2009, and thanks to a heroin addiction, he gained a rare and intimate knowledge of the alleys, causeways, and derelict buildings as he rambled around in search of his daily fix. . . and in pursuit of rail-yard graffiti.

In the graffiti scene, Selsor isn’t the most esteemed yahoo to ever pick up a can of spray paint. But unlike his peers who live for the sudden rush of the act, he takes the long view, acting as connoisseur and scholar of railway and freight-car graffiti, which he’s spent the last five years documenting, amassing more than 3,000 pictures.

Along a cut-through near Crazy Ray’s, Selsor pauses to illustrate the difference between a Baltimore and a Philadelphia tag. (Baltimore’s tags start small and swell outward, while a certain Philly tag is defined by rib cage-like strokes.)

Following Selsor down a line of freighters as he rattles off names of writers both local and national is like getting an insider’s after-hours tour of a museum. He can translate scribbles like KSW (Can’t Stop Writing), BMW (Baltimore Most Wanted). He can tell stories about writers like Awreck, Norm (LA), Insane, Stack of Bones, Shaken, Mear, Daver, Osirus, and Seder.

Pushing through the brambles to a train yard, Selsor comes upon a row of cars, gleaming, and it is immediately clear why everyone from big-named artists like Basquiat to can-wielding junkies have always been drawn to railroads: The molten morning light slanting down over the yard gilds even the most beat-up rail car, infusing it with a particularly American romanticism.

Selsor points out the distinctive tag marking a spot claimed by modern-day hobos, known as hoppers. He scans eight rows of rail for oncoming trains and yard bulls who might chase him away. Then, a couple clicks of his camera. . .

Documenting graffiti is nothing new. Baltimore’s own Martha Cooper has been shooting the wilds of New York rail lines since the ’70s, when spray painting was truly an outlaw pursuit that hadn’t been comfortably defined as an outgrowth of hip-hop, much less embraced by the city of Baltimore in the Open Walls and Articulate Baltimore street-art projects.

But something about documenting graffiti flies against the basic tenant of the art form, where nothing is permanent and nothing sacred. Despite street creeds to value older, established artists, even their stuff gets covered up or dissed by younger painters.

“It’s been there that long, let it be,” Selsor says with some exasperation.

But Selsor’s connection to the rails goes back even further to his great-grandfather, who was a railroad man. And Selsor’s father, also named Bob, put in 35 years with the Old Western Maryland Railroad, Chessie, and B&O lines as a boxcar-repair foreman who developed a reputation for getting whatever job needed doing done. During his career, the elder Selsor watched train-car graffiti blossom into an art form long before his son ever picked up a camera, thinking, Someone should document this. And he began to respect graffiti artists when he noticed they wouldn’t cover up the important parts of the car, such as inspection labeling and regulations.

Selsor the elder is short, stocky, his shoulders no doubt sculpted from a lifetime of picking up extremely heavy equipment—picture Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger covered in old school tats, with a shiny head and an easy smile—while Selsor the artist stands tall and lanky, the Artful Dodger fully grown. “My was working on cars and I was an art student,” the son says.

Unsurprisingly, the two didn’t see eye to eye. “When I was a kid staying out late partying, I’d have to wait in the yard while my father laced up his boots to go to work.”

Selsor Sr. used tough love to get his son off of drugs and then let him come home. Now, the two are close, sharing an appreciation of tattoos, graffiti, and trains. Selsor even recalls the time his father gave him a photo of a tag that read “Bob the Sweep.”

“He never said [so], but I suspect that he [tagged] that.”

But when Selsor asks about the mysterious “Bob the Sweep” graffiti, his father goes quiet.

“Bob the Sweep. You remember. You gave me that picture,” Selsor says.

“I don’t remember what that was about,” the elder Selsor responds, slyly.

His father may not own up to “Bob the Sweep,” but Selsor does know the identities of many of the artists whose work he plans to document in his ’zine, Baltimore Under Pressure. And even the knowledge he gained sweeping chimneys all those years wasn’t lost; it proved instrumental in getting him a job at Zeke’s Coffee.

Still, there is one train he hasn’t been able to capture. “That one is my white whale, you know, like Moby Dick. It’s got this Sugar painting,” he says. “I’ve missed it like four or five times.”

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