Hobo & Tramp Art

The history of the tramp artist is intriguing. Like the art form it is steeped in intrigue and romance. Mystery abounds. Dealers and writers love to promote its primitive hard scrabble origins. The makers are often depicted as road warriors, making pieces of art in exchange for room or board. Wait, you say it was not made by tramps because it took too long to make and how could they carry around the raw materials necessary to make even the simplest pieces? Well, wait a minute… there is another group of indigenous men we can plug into the equation - itinerants!!! Perfect. They stayed in one locale for months as they worked on farms and made tramp art by night. They probably made pieces after 12 or more hour days of hard labor while pitched in tents or barns if they were lucky! Sure.

Unfortunately this is a largely inaccurate description of the tramp art maker's origins. This simplistic approach is outdated and absolutely wrong. Common sense needs to prevail in defining tramp art's makers and their backgrounds. By examining thousands of pieces while doing research for my two books Tramp Art One Notch at a Time, published in 1998 & Tramp Art Another Notch, Folk Art from the Heart, published in 2009 the history of the tramp artist became clearer and more defined. He was primarily a home-based artisan who made pieces for his own use. He was a family man who worked in all types of industry whether he made one piece or many throughout his lifetime. There were over 40 ethnic groups practicing the art form in this country, from the Lebanese man who made a frame for his daughters wedding in 1908 to the tramp art box with the Ten Commandments on its top in Hebrew. It was an everyman craft appealing to men who had to stay busy and be productive. The need to encapsulate a definitive focus for the tramp maker is a responsibility I do not take lightly, but one that I have reached by examining the artifacts. The pieces told the story. The use of hearts to embellish many tramp art pieces was the key to unravel the mystery of these makers, a symbol too intimate to be done by a stranger. Yes, they were unschooled in the arts, but not in the heart. The pieces speak of devotion and love. The materials they used were indeed discarded parts of our society as they carved their wooden cigar boxes and their use of simple tools, mostly a common pocket knife, is also accurate but what they achieved was an art form we can admire in a more factual light. To appreciate and better understand tramp art one must realize that the art is their legacy, not the name we put to it.

I did not want to have a history of tramp art page. The ones I encounter on the internet are lacking credibility or downright farcical. They often give relevance to unsupported assumptions and written text from a time when true scholarship was lacking. Tramp art was only discovered in print 50 years ago. At that time the world of folk art was different and scholarship was based more on assumptions than factual foundations. Because I felt the history of tramp art was one that was still evolving, I would not give my 'against the grain' history lesson but would prefer to have one make their own conclusions based on the wealth of material I uncovered in my research. I wanted to exhibit examples of quality on our site to bring an element of wonder & surprise, which is my driving force when I think of tramp art. I would hope to give the collector, student or lover of the art form a foundation based more on what the true story was than what someone perceives it to be. Too often people first think of tramp art as being made by displaced individuals, it is indeed called tramp art but if one scratches the surface with a bit of common sense they will quickly arrive at the conclusion that there is more to the story. Too often the media jumps on what they perceive to be a sexier story and this unfortunately brings them further from the truth and because there are many available outlets that pander to these misplaced theories, one cannot help but get distorted ideas.

So here I am writing again that in a way tramp art is not tramp art but rather a humble art form made by humble hands from humble materials for all of us to enjoy.

— Clifford Wallach
author of Tramp Art One Notch at a Time (1998), and
Tramp Art Another Notch, Folk Art from the Heart (2009)