The roads less taken

“Road to Colossus”

Colossus of Roads appears where he’s most recognized—near a train.

Colossus of Roads appears where he’s most recognized—near a train.

“We’re on the second day and about 150 miles out. Last night we camped at an abandoned store with no ceiling in Fallon,” Eric Burke wrote in his May 18 blog entry.

Armed with a Nevada Arts Council grant, digital and super-8 cameras and not much else, Burke, 26, and his friend Derek Yost, 24, hit the road to shoot video footage of legendary train-car graffiti artist Colossus of Roads. The two University of Nevada, Reno art students left town by bicycle May 16, heading for Gurdon, Ark., and returned June 5 with mission accomplished. Or at least begun.

The plan was to examine Colossus’ prolific marks as a way to think socially about graffiti’s art-historical and anthropological roles, with Yost, who makes graffiti-inspired paintings available as a consultant on the medium.

The backup plan was to stay prepared for surprises, whether they involve the trip itself or a shift in creative intent.

“We will edit to create a documentary of artists on a journey to discover, or not discover, who is Colossus of Roads,” reads Burke’s grant proposal.

Flexibility turned out to be a necessity. After Yost hurt his knee in Oklahoma and had his camera stolen, the bike ride became a trip made partially by Greyhound, train and, eventually, a Dodge van borrowed from Colossus’ son, Blake.

Burke and Yost slept wherever they landed—"On the side of forgotten highways and in oversized Victorian houses,” wrote Burke, in a June 3 e-mail from Boulder, Colo.—but they didn’t stray too far from connectivity to keep their blog current with posts about the trip (

Burke had mused before the journey that he could imagine a successful documentary about a fruitless search in the event that Colossus couldn’t be tracked down. But Colossus proved to be an approachable and fascinating source. Train-car graffiti is as old as the rails the painted cars ride on, and the art-school graduate and long-time Missouri Pacific Railroad worker, now 61, has been defying expectations since he started using the rolling, industrial canvasses decades ago.

“Everyone has their own ideas about what graffiti is, and usually it involves a spray can,” says Burke, after a day back in Reno. “But things he’s dealing with involve, like, postal graffiti … sending random people letters. Because graffiti is about subverting the public space. And getting something in your mailbox is … [using] the public space.”

Colossus, also known as Russell Butler, has several other projects in the works, like filling two old cars on his property with keys that people send in the mail. One of his most notable earlier efforts involved marking train cars without paint.

“Some of the really interesting graffiti he was doing early on,” Burke explained, “had to do with not even using anything that was visible.” Colossus would spray chemicals onto the cars through stencils he’d cut (one in the shape of a likeness of Pablo Picasso) that would later cause an image to appear in rust or in the surface of the paint.

Colossus’ main motivation in dreaming up these acts of poetic vandalism, says Burke, was simply “To kill the humdrum dullness of every day.”

As for the latest iteration of Burke’s motivation, the eventual documentary could still take one of several forms. It could even morph into fiction.

But, for the moment, Burke plans to mull it over.

“I have no impulse to solidify how the remainder will unravel.”