Let’s talk Tramp Art. Think “loveable trainyard hobo of questionable hygiene” and not a woman of ill-repute. Now that we’ve gotten that important distinction out of the way, let’s move on…

For the uninformed, “Tramp Art” is a term that qualifies useful or decorative items made by untrained artists typically from simple materials - cigar boxes, matchsticks, shipping boxes, etc - really any item that could have been whittled by the artist. It’s a subgenre of Folk Art or Outsider Art and it’s pretty cool stuff.

Often these artists would take wood chips, layering them on top of each other and holding them together with glue or nails (whatever they could find) or literally whittling layers into the wooden pieces to create intricate detailed art. Think jewelry boxes, picture frames, knick knacks, etc.

Because the artists were generally wanderers the who/what/where of the pieces are usually unknown. While many were the “loveable trainyard hobo” we spoke about, many were also factory workers, farmers, or laborers exploring their creative side.

Side note - Similar to Tramp Art are Hobo Nickels. These are cool engraved/modified nickels where the artist etches modifications to the existing design on the nickel. Most were Buffalo Nickels as they were softer due to the high silver content and easier to etch.

Why I find this interesting

I like the romance of the itinerate craftsperson riding the rails in the early 20th century, whittlin’ decorative objects out of junk to get a few bucks to buy some of that corn liquor and sleeping in a freight car on the rails to St. Louis. And it was really like that - the name, Tramp Art, is more of a misnomer as most of these craftspeople were probably just hobbyists selling their wares at church carnivals, etc.

In addition, the intricate patterns and creativity that artist operating outside of traditional artistic conventions can bring to their work, is really amazing.

Scout Savant Tips for Scouting

I tend to find Tramp Art in junk lots at auction. Rarely are these the stars of any auction since the primitive materials (tramp art) often break down/get damaged over time. They usually don’t make it to the floor of a Goodwill or antique shop as they may not be recognized as an actual piece of valuable art (or may be busted up).