Graffiti covers scores of walls, businesses and residences in El Paso today, a result of gangs communicating with each
other while leaving the general public in the dark. This isn't the first time that distinct groups have used code to converse
with each other.
During the Depression thousands of unemployed men turned hobo overnight flocked to Texas because they heard from others traveling the country that
there was a town out West called El Paso known for its generosity to beggars. This news reached the vagabonds through a simple
system of symbols which could be found on street curbs and buildings nationwide.
A February 8, 1932 El Paso Times article carried the following code used by the hobos of the 1930s to spread world of El
1. Two hobos, traveling together, have gone the direction of the arrows.
2. Hobos not welcome.
Will be put to work on rock pile, sawing wood, or hard labor.
3. This sign depicts the bars of a jail.
4. Means "OUT"
or "GET OUT." Poor pickings.
5. The town itself is no good, but the churches and missions are kindly disposed.
is a good place for hobos to meet other hobos.
7. All the ministers, mission heads, and Christian leaders are disposed
to welcome transients.
8. The pendulum indicates that the people here swing back and forth in their attitude toward hobos,
sometimes friendly and other times unkind.
9. Represents two rails and a cross tie. Means "Railway Terminal" or "Division
Point," a good place to board trains in different directions.
10. This sign represents teeth; it means the police or people
are hostile to tramps.
11. This means "the jail is alive with cooties."
12. Keep on moving: the police, the churches,
and the people are no good.
13. This is a swell place to stop: these people are bighearted.
14. Food may be had for
15. The sign for "OK." People are very good, kindly disposed.
16. Best results are secured if two hobos
travel together, not so good for a lone hobo.
As a result of its generosity, El Paso came to be known as an "easy mark" for beggars. These men could make from $2 to
$5 a day or more panhandling when working men took home much less: Olive D. McGuire, secretary of the El Paso Community Chest,
warned townspeople to inspect their curbs and be thrilled of hobos had placed an emblem of lattice work there- a symbol meaning
"hobos not welcome." McGuire distributed sheets containing the hobo language and asked residents to send panhandlers to organized
agencies for help.
The generosity of El Pasoans has continued through the years even though the city is not affluent. Some restaurants in
town give their left-over food to shelters or charity organizations, or they simply give it to the homeless who ask, rather
than throwing it away.
Although the hobo sign language no longer exists, many homeless still know that El Paso is a generous city, recently having
been named one of the top 50 U.S. cities for charitable giving.