Brian's Origin Stories

One Man’s Art is Another Man’s Canvas

One Man’s Art is Another Man’s Canvas

Back in my younger years, I was working for a bridge construction company.  I primarily worked in the fabrication shop, but occasionally, when needed, I would go work out in the field.  When they asked for volunteers to work weekends in the field, my hand was always the first to go up. From the paycheck standpoint, field jobs paid prevailing wages, which meant $$$ compared to shop pay. Since it was the weekend, I also received overtime pay at the higher pay rate.  On one Saturday of overtime fieldwork, I would make the same pay as three days of shop work.  So for being an 18-year-old kid, this was a pretty sweet deal.

There was a bit of a downside, as many of the bridges we built were often several hours’ drive away. Which meant long days, early rise, and late getting back into town.  The project manager that recruited me for this particular weekend offered to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to drive out there. I thought this would be great; I could sleep on the way up.

It was 4 am, and we were off.  After some general idle chitchat, I thought for sure he had run out of questions and I would be able to sleep the rest of the way.  Not so; whenever I started to doze off, he would ask me a question. I’m sure it was deliberate, as we would drive for miles in silence, but as soon as I closed my eyes, Bam! another question.

The rest of the workday was your typical day working in the field, with lots of physical activity while getting yelled at by the boss.  All the project managers were super uptight, constantly yelling at everyone.  Mainly, they were yelling because they were stressing out about the job, not that anyone, in particular, was doing a bad job.  Most of these projects were worth several 100 million dollars, not to mention the liability of human life.  Bridge construction is dangerous work; while I worked there, I saw some gross shit happen to the human body.  I am sure that the stress of all that pushed most project managers to the edge, which caused them to vent through overreacting.  Thus, getting yelled at was just part of the job, and I never took it personally.

I also had a lot of respect for this particular project manager;  he knew he was uptight, so he tried to resist the urge to be a dick. However, this weekend, he didn’t like how the backhoe operator was grading the area and told me he just wanted to pull him off the machine and do it himself.  He said. “but if I don’t let him fuck it up first, I won’t have anything to yell at him about, so he won’t learn.”

The day wound down, and it was time to head home.  On the way back, he wanted to stop at a bridge down the highway he had completed just before starting this one to see how it was “holding up.” I hoped he was joking about the “Holding up” comment, but I jumped in the truck to see his last build.

We pulled off the road to look at the bridge, and immediately one step out of the truck, he became pissed off, and not the yelling at the crew kind of pissed off, the genuine sort of pissed off.  Someone had tagged the bridge, his bridge.  The tag was right in the middle of the beam facing downriver.  I wondered how the hell they got out there to the center of that bridge beam.  There was no catwalk, just a concrete beam spanning over the river.  He was pissed and rambled off a bunch of expletives ending with, “why the Fuck would someone do this to such a beautiful bridge? It was such a beautiful bridge!” He said it with such passion as if the bridge was a priceless work of art.

Now, this bridge was no Golden Gate Bridge design. It was a simple bridge.  It had concrete pillars holding up concrete beams that held the road deck.  The concrete beams had a gentle curve to them as they arched across the river. Other than that, the bridge design was pretty much your standard freeway overpass-style bridge.   However, even with its simplicity, I understood what he meant by it being a beautiful bridge.

Many bridges can take three years or more to complete, so dedicating that much time to build something at that scale, you naturally take pride in your work.  By the end of the project, you are emotionally invested in your work.  You will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when you step back and look at all you built. By witnessing his reaction to the tag, I knew he took great pride in his work, and it was a shame that someone tagged it.

I often wonder if the tagger took such pride in his work or if it was simply ego.  He had to prove himself to the gang or stake out some pointless bullshit territory.     Over the years, I have seen some really beautiful street art.  Some street art is so impressive that there have been books and documentaries about them.  But this, this appeared to be just a run-of-the-mill gang tag, nothing more than a stray dog stopping to lift its leg on a fire hydrant.

Now, realize that art is in the eye of the beholder, and just like my boss, who saw a beautiful bridge that was simple in design, the tagger may have thought his tag was beautiful in its simple design.  The bridge was pretty standard-looking, but my boss still took pride in its creation.  Since none of us were there, we will never know if the tagger took pride in his simple standard-looking tag.    However, would a true artist deface another artist’s work, deliberately using another artist’s work as their own canvas? Or is this just the work of a disrespectful-minded individual?

Trimet Bus Stop with etched glass Portland Oregon
Falling Leaves by Carolyn Law. Trimet Bus Shelter in Portland, Oregon

The human mind has a weakness, making it easily susceptible to persuasion without knowing it is being persuaded.  For example, TriMet, the public transportation department for Portland, Oregon, got tired of their bus stop shelters constantly being vandalized; they commissioned an artist to create geometrical patterns etched in the glass to deter tagging and other vandalism.   They say that this has had a remarkable effect on the livability of their city.  In fact, Portland has had a rich history when it comes to public art.  They have been incorporating art all over the city since the 1990s.

Wood Slicer resaw bandsaw blade

There have been other studies and examples of this worldwide, not just as art pieces, but deliberate decisions made to the architecture of buildings, neighborhood layout, and traffic flow, to subconsciously deter bad behavior and make our cities a more enjoyable experience.

Street Art on Building Denver ColoradoIf we were to incorporate street art murals into bridges and overpasses, I wonder if we would reduce gang tagging and add to the beauty of a bridge with a simple design.  If street art was part of the blueprints my old project manager worked from, I’m sure he would have taken great pride in managing the installation of such art on his bridge.


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I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.

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