Generally, if you have a message you want to get across, the usual options are available – buy an ad online or get a TV or radio commercial, or even hire a banner plane to tow your message across the sky.
Unique to Pensacola, however, you also have the option of investing a couple of dollars into a few cans of paint and emblazoning your personal message on a local landmark – and it’s not even illegal.
We affectionately call it the Graffiti Bridge.
This favored target for colorful artistic expression is a more-than-century-old train trestle, built in 1888 by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, which crosses 17th Avenue just north of the intersection with Bayfront Parkway.
Longtime locals have vague memories of the bridge first being painted in the 1950s… However, city records show that painting graffiti on the bridge – also called “tagging” the bridge – dates back to at least the early 1980s.
Commuters headed between East Pensacola Heights and Gulf Breeze are treated to messages and images that vary daily, ranging from Happy Birthday and prom date proposals to Breast Cancer Awareness and Earth Day reminders, to In Memoriam tributes, to congratulatory messages for local sports teams.
Back in 2016, some friends and I painted Graffiti Bridge in recognition of LGBT Pride month and local Pride events. I took it very seriously. Although I had driven past Graffiti Bridge hundreds of times, I had never looked at it with an eye toward painting it.
We carefully measured, drew and painted our message. As we did, our ambitions shrank from the entire south side of the bridge to just the left side. And our web address morphed to just the word “PRIDE.” It turns out, painting is harder than it looks! But we were extremely gratified to know that our visual message would be seen by thousands of people on their daily commute.
The next morning I drove by before work and, predictably, our tagging had already been tagged with a cat meme and what might have been an alien face (aliens are a recurrent theme in the graffiti at the bridge). We had known our masterpiece probably only last a few hours.
And that’s the magic of the Graffiti Bridge.
The layers of paint on it are as innumerable as the sands on Pensacola Beach. It is everchanging. The artwork on the bridge varies from the “teenagers with spray cans” category to the amateur (like ours) to the professional. In fact, the same day we put our PRIDE tag on the left side of the bridge, a commercial artist using airbrush equipment painted a mural to a Blue Angels pilot who had recently passed away in a crash.
And, as I said, it’s perfectly legal!
The city of Pensacola specifically carved out an exception for Graffiti Bridge more than a decade ago. Why the exception? Your guess is as good as mine! It’s been an unspoken rule for decades now.
Nevertheless, putting your mark on Pensacola in such a uniquely Pensacola way is an exhilarating and creative way to express your message. Even if for only a brief, present moment the bridge tells your story.
You still made your mark.