The mural didn’t need to go

Pete Stroud

Until a couple of weeks ago, art floated in the sky over Town Lake. On one side of the mural, the artist painted an unabashedly whimsical but artfully rendered rocket blasting toward a distant star exploding with color. On the other side he or she depicted a storm-tossed sea, done in a vivid, linear style reminiscent of 19th-century Japanese ukiyo-e painters like Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Between the two images, the artist wrote in large, clear, clean letters, “Focus one point and breathe.”

The mural was prominently displayed on the Western side of the Union Pacific Railroad Trestle over Town Lake. It lay in full view of commuters on the Lamar Boulevard Bridge, bikers and runners on the James D. Pflueger Pedestrian Bridge and boaters on the water. Whoever the artist was, he or she sought no credit for the work, signing it only with the initials “SKO,” and charging no fee for its display.

A couple of weeks ago a Union Pacific maintenance crew that happened to be replacing the bridge’s rail ties painted over the mural.

I discovered this as I was paddling under the bridge, intending to take a picture of the painting for my girlfriend, who had often expressed her admiration for it. As the art had been up there for many months and was well regarded by the general public, the expanse of mud-brown metal that greeted me in its place came as an unpleasant shock. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised; the “focus one point and breathe” mural was merely the latest casualty in an endless war between street artists and the powers-that-be. But in a city that prides itself on art, music, culture and “weirdness” more than anything else, couldn’t those powers have looked the other way— at least this once?

Yes, the mural wasn’t officially sanctioned, and the artist trespassed on private property to create it, but it wasn’t gang-related. It wasn’t offensive. It wasn’t ugly, and it wasn’t doing even the slightest iota of harm to anybody. It was sweet, beautiful and irrepressibly cheerful. What the hell’s wrong with that?

“We prefer not to paint over graffiti, because it takes time away from work that needs to be done to ensure that we have stable track structure,” said Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza. “Whenever we have crews painting bridges, that means those crews are not out inspecting tracks. In addition, we have to stop train traffic on a busy rail line.”

The one caveat that should be noted is that the artist put his or herself at extreme risk to create the mural. “Those are active tracks, and trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Espinoza said. “There’s not a lot of room for error when you’re working on the tracks, and they don’t have the training that our employees have… if there had been an accident, it totally would not have been worth it.”

That’s absolutely true, and Espinoza is right to remind people not to do something as incredibly foolhardy as sneaking onto a train trestle over a lake in the middle of the night and hanging over the edge for an extended period of time.

I can’t speak for everybody, but I found the mural to be one of the coolest sights in the city. The artist, whoever he or she was, turned a plain, brown, unremarkable railroad trestle into a charming, attractive reminder to stop, relax and enjoy the moment once in a while. Every time I saw it, whether from a kayak on the lake or one of the other bridges, I felt compelled to obey the mural’s instructions. I looked off into the distance, quieted my mind for a heartbeat, and breathed.

And you know what? It felt great.

Stroud is an international relations and global studies sophomore from San Antonio.

Updated 9:11 p.m. Correction: Because of a reporting error, an Oct. 11 column (and its headline, “City Hall: The mural didn’t need to go”) incorrectly said the City of Austin ordered a mural on the Union Pacific Train trestle removed. Union Pacific made the decision to paint over the mural independently. Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza told The Daily Texan that the city government "expressed an interest in having [Union Pacific] paint over the graffiti," but was referring to years past rather than the specific mural discussed in the column. Union Pacific made the decision to remove the mural based on that standing arrangement, but without any formal request from City Hall.