Symbols and Codes

BWTL has been researching and looking for symbols and codes used in today’s society be it secret signs or symbols used by groups (i.e. street gangs, drug dealers, human traffickers) who go to great lengths in keeping their operations and secrets out of the public eye. The goal being to document, and inscribe the symbols as a type of public awareness project as a way to compare and contrast the differences in life from history and now.

Hoboglyphs is a fascinating system of symbols understood only by the hobo community back during the Depression era. They would inscribe these symbols using chalk or coal as a way to leave or send a message for the next hobo. Their code features elements like circles, arrows, and more that made up the directional symbols. Hash marks usually meant danger, but many of the signs were cryptic and nearly impossible to understand outside of the hobo community. One example is the symbol for a courthouse nearby; a curly line inside a circle.

The pics below are of BWTL artists working together and learning how to inscribe”hoboglyphs” together with people who are unhoused and residing at Resources for Human Development”s CHOC (Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center) in Norristown, PA. CHOC shelter in Montgomery County, PA has since closed.

Hobos have played a big part in the history of America – one that’s often ignored. They were the nomadic workers who roamed the country at the start of the 20th century and through the Great Depression, taking work wherever they could and never spending too long in any one place. In their extensive travels, hobos learned to leave notes for each other, giving information on the best places to camp or find a meal, or dangers that lay ahead. This unique Hobo Code was known to the brotherhood of freight train riders and used by all to keep the community of traveling workers safe, fed and in work.


A few other examples of symbols and codes from history:

underground railway symbols

The Underground Railroad Symbols were secret codes, words, signals and signs used by pass hidden messages to and from slaves who were escaping slavery and those who were helping them in this very dangerous activity.

concentration camp urine letterThe brilliant code used by concentration camp inmates that secretly helped tell the world about Nazi experiments. The concealed message that the concentration camp victim wrote was termed “list moczem,” meaning “letter in urine,” in Polish. When it comes in contact with paper, urine loses its color quickly and becomes invisible on the page. However, if the paper is heated, the writing reappears. A loved one to one of the inmates applied a hot iron and the secret message was revealed. The letters, sent between 1943-1944 from Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp 50 miles (80km) north of Berlin, had messages written in urine between the lines and in the margins of the letters to families, which were censored.

An interesting article from Hyperallergic about emoji’s, our modern day symbols, reimagined with famous artworks from history –

Woman Tipping Hand 💁‍♀️ as the Mona LisaMona Lisa emoji style tipping hand

Have you ever wondered what the emoji awkwardly known as Woman Tipping Hand really means? Its most common usage is as an expression of sass, a sort of visual hair flip, but a closer look reveals the figure’s hand turned upward as though holding a tray, muddling the sassy girl interpretation. Its true significance may be just as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile, making it the perfect fit for Leonardo’s timeless masterpiece.

Man in Business Suit Levitating🕴️and Apple 🍏 as Magritte’s “Son of Man”

Aside from being one of the most recognizable surrealist paintings, Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (1946) gives us an opportunity to use one of the strangest emoji in the lexicon: the unexplainable Man in Business Suit Levitating, which you may not have noticed until now. According to one report, which traces the bizarre figure to the history of ska music, the emoji ranks among the least popular and has long stumped smartphone users (an article in the Paris Review blog describes it as the “floating face of capitalism.”) Whatever the case, juxtaposing the handy and much less confusing green Apple emoji on the face of the suited man produces a rather faithful allegory of Magritte’s painting.