JK’s Tunnel: An Unknown Hobo Folk Art Environment on the L.A. River

When our friend Susan Phillips–the graffiti scholar who recently took us to the Confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco to see century-old hobo inscriptions–told us about a riverside tunnel that had been elaborately carved by one anonymous artist around 1940, we were eager to see it.

JK's Tunnel entrance

Today, we were able to satisfy our curiosity about the obscure site that Susan calls “JK’s Tunnel” while helping to document this extraordinary and hard-to-reach place.

Joining us was Craig Sauer, a photographer who uses Matterport 3D Showcase technology to create virtual tours of physical spaces. Most of his work is commercial (real estate), but he has a passion for offbeat historical spaces and reached out asking if we could help him gain access to someplace special. As it happened, we had just the site in mind.

Craig Sauer prepares to scan JK's Tunnel

Craig Sauer gives the thumbs up

After we determined that the level of light inside JK’s Tunnel would be low enough for details to be captured, we made the date. And this morning found our eager crew tramping through the high grass and down a little wash to explore the womb-like space where the mysterious JK carved his intriguing explosions of word salad.

JK's Tunnel 4 Leaf Klover

Probably using a railroad spike as a chisel, the artist painstakingly carved important words and phrases into the smooth concrete vault of the tunnel. He lists American cities and years and the names of guns. He writes LANA TURNER and STAY OUT OF JAIL. He writes MEXICO AND REBEL LAND.

And up on the ceiling he carves an urgent litany evoking wartime mass movement: TRUCKS AUTOS MAIL SHIPS PAINTINGS AIRPLANES ARMNENTS MUNITIONS FACTORIES JOBS POSTAGE MILLS BOTTLES KLOTHING SHELTER.

JK's Tunnel: WW2 Word Salad

Whoosh–can’t you just see it rushing by JK’s safe little tunnel home?

Who was this artist? On these walls, he calls himself John Kristian, Johnny K, Johnson Kraft, Johnny Kake, Journeyman Kavalier, John Kook and plain old JK. We don’t know his real name or when he was born or died, and maybe we never will.

We just know that sometime around 1940, he came to this quiet place by the river and took all the time he needed to capture the voices in his head on the smooth tunnel walls. And standing there inside JK’s Tunnel, with the trains and the river passing by, despite all the years and layers of paint from graffiti artists who came after, he spoke to us. Now through Craig’s wonderful 3-D rendering, he can speak to you, too.