It’s one of Pensacola’s most recognizable landmarks, a medium for all the inelegant, nuanced, hopeful, angry, short-lived and long-lasting feelings that our community generates. It is a symbol of the brief, passionate emotions we have and the overarching narrative of our collective story. It is the graffiti bridge, and it’s finally getting the artistic platform it deserves.
The 17th Ave. railroad trestle—better known as the graffiti bridge—is nothing remarkable in itself. It is a piece of concrete that carries the CSX railroad over a two-lane span of highway near Pensacola Bay. But the graffiti bridge, as we all know, has become something much more than that: it is a socially constructed and impromptu art installation.
“The graffiti bridge is a landmark that oozes authenticity, and authenticity is the hallmark of great cities like Pensacola,” said Mayor Ashton Hayward in a statement.
Enter Rachael Pongetti, who was born in Columbus, Miss., but came here for college in the 80s. She has been an art instructor for Pensacola State College, the University of West Florida, the Pensacola Museum of Art and the PACE Center for Girls. She has also created and led many workshops on photography. Her images have even been exhibited and published locally, nationally and internationally.
Pongetti admitted that while she knew of the bridge, she wasn’t a regular observer of it until a friend mentioned to her the idea of photographing it as part of a project. After some initial hesitance born of an already packed schedule, she began taking daily pictures of the bridge on Jan. 1, 2011 and ended on Jan. 11, 2012. Soon, the unofficial community canvas became her own. Now, in 2015, her photographs will be on display in dual exhibitions at First City Art Center and the Pensacola Museum of Art.
Throughout the project, Pongetti said that she wished to juxtapose the human philosophy of change with the transformations the bridge’s artists impressed upon it. “The way I’m able to process change most directly is through my lens,” said Pongetti. “The bridge changes every day and I was able to learn to watch all that comes from change. Sometimes the bridge was artistic and beautiful; other times there was something very un-artistic there. So you find all of this range of emotions that you’re going through and I was learning to really observe the change instead of becoming attached to it.”
Sometimes, Pongetti would spend hours a day at the Pensacola Bay fixture, just admiring its beauty, mourning a beautiful painting that had been covered up by something crude, or looking optimistically to the future and wondering what artistry the next day would bring. Now, more than four years after the project began, it is coming to an end.
In April 2015, First City Art Center will host an exhibition of the photos spotlighting the grungy aspects, along with live painting, music, and group participation. The Pensacola Museum of Art exhibit will highlight the more visual and intimate aspects of the project. The details on the PMA installation are still being worked out. Pongetti has also started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money for a book, which will showcase all the best pictures. Kickstarter supporters will receive different expressions of gratitude depending on their pledge, but some gifts to expect are a copy of the book, an event T-shirt, tickets to the VIP reception, and even a photo session with Pongetti and signed metal prints.
“The community is going to have to come forth and help make the book, which I think is great,” said Pongetti. “It is a community bridge and the community is going to be what brings this book to life.”
Pongetti said the most profound principle she learned through it all was the dynamic and unpredictable nature of change and evolution. Sometimes the change was on a very myopic, individual level, like when hurriedly done spray-paint strokes conveyed an homage to a lost loved one. Other times, the bridge was a symbol of events bigger than itself, with paintings portraying the death of Osama bin Laden and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some paintings were less inspiring and thought provoking, like support of sports teams, insults between ex-lovers, and indelicate profanity. Even those things, Pongetti said, were part of the message of the bridge, as they are parts of the many seasons of our lives.
“Sometimes the change was so abrupt,” said Pongetti. “It was such a metaphor for life, really. What it taught me was that even though somebody’s story is covered up and changed it’s really never gone, and that’s the same with people. People’s lives and their stories are written on that bridge and they tell something that’s very important, and even though it’s gone in a matter of a few hours, it’s really not gone; it simply became a layer.”