Built in the 1930s, the Graffiti Bridge was, for generations of city residents, a place where they could leave their mark. And over the more than five decades it stood, thousands of people — many of them dangling upside down over Western by their feet — did just that. In just about every color and hue. On just about any occasion.
As the Robert Symes Trucking & Excavating Co. slowly completed the task of demolishing and hauling off Graffiti Bridge in June 1991, it would've been impossible to know the fate that lie ahead for the longtime Oklahoma City landmark.
But when pieces of the bridge crumbled to the ground and vast slabs of layered paint peeled off their concrete host, it should have come as no surprise that Graffiti Bridge — or at least parts of it — had begun a second life.
Some people took a piece of the Graffiti Bridge just after its demise, swooping in like vultures as piles of concrete and chunks of paint were dumped near the demolition site, which was surrounded by hundreds of mourners.
Randy Powers, a local artist, musician and employee of Oklahoma City Public Schools, has been making art from the bridge's rubble since it came down. Instead of grabbing a paperweight-sized piece of concrete, Powers and some friends went to the final resting place of Graffiti Bridge — a nameless field just off Broadway Extension — and removed hundreds and hundreds of pounds of the bridge's multi-colored skin.
From these large remnants, Powers has crafted distinctive jewelry pieces that are unlike any other.
"I've been doing it for so long, I've got it down to an art form," Powers said. "And I have enough to keep me busy for at least the next 10 years."
As the owner of the Route 66 boutique at 50 Penn Place, Jeanette Koenig has done her part to spread the earthly remains of the Graffiti Bridge. She's been carrying Powers' hand-crafted wares since 1991 and has sold some of them to people from as far away as Denmark.
"People may not have any connection with Graffiti Bridge, but the pieces are so unique to Oklahoma City that many customers choose them to remember our city by," Koenig said.
The only member of the city council to vote against its destruction, Mark Schwartz said the bridge still held a special place in his heart. Schwartz recently died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. But, before his death, Schwartz spoke to The Oklahoman about the colorful landmark. Nearly 20 years after the fact, Schwartz still had a piece of concrete and a bronze-coated railroad stake he had taken from the demolition site.
"It's sad that people down the road will hear the stories about Graffiti Bridge, but won't have the chance to go see it again," Schwartz said. "But that's part of progress, I guess."
Glen "Dick" Hunt wanted to give Graffiti Bridge a second chance at life. He bought it for about $38,000 shortly before its demise and had wanted to build a diner on top of the old bridge. Plans were made. Old boxcars were closely inspected. Hunt even considered having the bridge moved to a nearby field, but progress, it seemed, wouldn't be slowed by one man's efforts.
"The city moved quick once they made their minds up," Hunt said. "The city wanted progress."
Hunt still has some of the old artist's renderings of what could have been. He still has a copy of the speech he gave to members of the city council as he pleaded for the Graffiti Bridge's life in the summer of 1991. And, yes, he still has a little piece of concrete, although he's not sure where it is.
Even Don Timberlake, the attorney whose office sat next to the bridge for years, couldn't help but grab a piece of Graffiti Bridge's layered outer coat.
"I kept it for years, but I finally lost it during a move," Timberlake said. "It was amazing to see all the colors that were left over time."
Timberlake said the bridge cost him thousands of dollars in repairs, including repaving and repainting his parking lot four times, and "fondly" recalls picking up hundreds of eggs when rival high schools bombed the bridge after it was painted the wrong color.
But Timberlake doesn't hold any hard feelings toward the Graffiti Bridge, at least none he'll admit to.
"My kids painted that bridge," he said. "I got more pleasure out of the bridge than displeasure, that much I can tell you."
With high school football playoffs underway, it's easy for David Morton to remember what Graffiti Bridge represented to thousands of students who painted it over the decades.
Morton came to Bishop McGuinness High School in the fall of 1981 as a counselor and coach of the soccer, track and cross country teams.
Now the principal of Bishop McGuinness, Morton remembers the bridge was painted primarily by the students of his school, John Marshall and Casady. Students from other schools had their crack at it from time to time, but he said it was basically a three-way battle.
"It was a constant rivalry between those schools as far as who had painted in next," Morton said.
"I would say that if you talked to people in the community, 90 percent of the time it had McGuinness colors on it."
One of Graffiti Bridge "artists" was Chris Bright, the new Headmaster of Casady School and a Bishop McGuinness alum, class of '84.
"It was reserved for the high schools in the area to paint and make a spirit statement," Bright said.
"The idea was to completely obscure the prior group of kids. I can't even imagine how many layers there were in the end."
Bright painted the bridge a number of times during his time at Bishop McGuinness. He said the efforts required logistical planning, including rounding up paint, a vehicle, rollers, brushes, a pair of disposable clothes and deciding who would paint which letters.
"I never saw anybody with harnesses or anything, but it was possible," he said. "My group was kind of tame."
Morton dealt with the antics related to painting Graffiti Bridge for about a decade. And while he said it could be a "nightmare" at times — like when one of his students spilled a bucket of paint on a brand new BMW — Morton conceded Graffiti Bridge's role in the local high schools.
"It was a love-hate deal," he said. "That [Graffiti Bridge] is one of those special things that students remember about high school, maybe more than what they remember about chemistry or English class."