Union Pacific has a long history of using its vast network of attorneys on retainer to avoid responsibility for its property. Its is an obscenely powerful company focused on its bottom line. Yet its latest heavy-handed attack on the citizens of Austin boggles the mind. UP painted out the mural depicted below because it was repairing the bridge where the mural was. Why does the exterior of a bridge that already has a mural need to be painted ugly brown? Why would any company prefer this? You can see if the left side of the photo the ugly patches of mismatched brown on the bridge. These are buff marks from painting out graffiti. Are buff marks an improvement over the mural? What is best for Austin? A poorly painted bridge with a patchwork of brown buff marks on an otherwise nondescript bridge or a mural that helps define the character of the city? Union Pacific has apparently lost its mind.
Sara Hartley, media contact for the City of Austin’s Public Works department, told us that the city had nothing to do with the murals’ erasure. She said, “Unless Union Pacific worked with Graffiti Abatement and made the request, that’s not something we would do. They own that bridge.” When she read the claim in Stroud’s article that a Union Pacific maintenance crew painted over the artwork at “the behest of Austin City government,” she said, “I don’t even know who that would be.”
We reached Raquel Espinoza, the Union Pacific spokesperson quoted in the piece. She confirmed that she had spoken with Stroud, but denied receiving any request from the city. She said that usually, Union Pacific doesn’t respond to requests to remove graffiti. “People ask us to paint over graffiti, but that’s not our focus. We’re focused on safety.” In this case, she said, Union Pacific had received comments from individuals in the community about the mural. Normally, the company would not have responded, but they had to make repairs to the railroad bridge and decided to paint over the artwork “while they were there.”
Espinoza emphasized that painting or tagging that location would have been highly dangerous. “It’s a railroad, it’s high up, and we run it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We hope people will not risk their lives.”
So there you have it. Absent any other information, it appears that contrary to the assertion made in the Daily Texan, the City is off the hook for the murals’ disappearance. And ironically, had Union Pacific not already had a crew out there, they’d still be up, reminding us all to breathe and occasionally pretend to be something odd and fantastical–simply because it would have been too dangerous to bother otherwise.
Of course, that sense of danger might have been part of the murals’ appeal to Austinites, and why so many are disappointed to see them gone. They were high up, in a dangerous location, and it was impossible not to think, “Damn, that’s crazy,” even as you admired them. And they’re not likely to be replaced anytime soon.
For many Austinites, the beloved “Focus One Point And Breathe” mural was a friendly voice reminding drivers stuck in traffic on Lamar Boulevard to chill. Coupled with the equally charming “Let’s Pretend We’re Robots!” exhortation to its left, it was like a helpful message from the ether, something that told joggers and commuters alike that nothing was really that serious. We’d all be fine if we just remembered to breathe.
And then last week the murals disappeared, replaced by ugly brown paint. Speculation ran rampant as to who the killjoy anti-graffiti philistines were. Was it the owners of the bridge, Union Pacific? The City of Austin? That last possibility was dismissed by many who theorized that the celebrated artwork had actually been commissioned by the city. But UT’s Daily Texan newspaper has an opinion piece suggesting that it was in fact the City of Austin that decided to remove the murals.
Student Pete Stroud’s article, “City Hall: The mural didn’t need to go” is categorized as “opinion,” and does not feature a response from the city or an explanation as to why a response is not included. It does, however, quote Union Pacific spokesperson Raquel Espinoza as saying, “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” and states that the company erased the murals at the city’s request.
So… did the City of Austin decide to make Austin even less weird than it has been lately? We’re not sure, although we have contacted the city’s public information office and hope to be able to update this post soon.