LOS ANGELES — Like most cities, Los Angeles has a hidden history that you don’t readily find in books. Instead, you’ll find these stories scrawled on walls in unreachable places. Most call it graffiti, but anthropologist Susan Phillips interprets it as a unique part of our history.

“That up there says '8-13-14' and that is August 13, 1914, which is over 100 years old,” said Phillips as she pointed to graffiti under a bridge above her head. “And this whole wall is filled with this hundred-year-old graffiti that was actually written by hobos.” 


Written way back when the L.A. Aqueduct first opened, the whole area looked very different. When the Army Corps of Engineers paved the river in 1940, they dug down deep enough for the tags to be unreachable.

“And that’s what inadvertently preserved these marks for over a hundred years,” explained Phillips.

Los Angeles’s relationship with graffiti is complicated. Many oppose it as vandalism, but just as many cherish the symbolism graffiti brings to a community, especially for those that created it in the first place.     

“So the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco have always been magnets for people because people here found shelter in the nexus of railroads, bridges and water and they used all those things together,” said Phillips. “And it's always been a magnet for graffiti even before the paving and you can see the remnants of that even today in terms of whitewashed walls, spray cans everywhere. There’s constant production of writing in the city and that has not changed for the past hundred years.”

Within the subculture, graffiti is known as writing and practitioners are called writers, not to be confused with Phillips who is an author of books about graffiti such as Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. and her new book, The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.

Researching her book has taken her throughout the county from Manzanar to Malibu, but Downtown under bridges and in tunnels is where you can find the best preserved hobo carvings.

“This tunnel is what I call JK's tunnel because it was a tunnel of this one guy,” said Phillips as she entered a tunnel by the L.A. River near Downtown. “Basically this man occupied it at some point between maybe late '30s through the '50s and he spent his time carving probably with a railroad spike.” 

We’ll never know JK’s real story. He may have been a veteran. Phillips believes he may have come from Connecticut. It’s still a mystery, but his carvings live on in this tunnel.

“What I like about it is the idea that it leaves as many questions as it answers and I think the history of graffiti in Los Angeles is like that as well,” said Phillips. “The untold numbers of amount of voices that are here that will never ever be heard but that somehow are part of the historical fabric of the city and so this tunnel to me represents one sort of lens of getting at some of those voices.”  

If only these tunnels could talk.