‘Obey’ graffiti could leave town along with old Union Village bridge

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – If you live in or travel through town frequently, you’ve probably seen it – light markings resembling a face stenciled on one of the barriers by the Union Village Railroad Bridge.

The markings don’t necessarily catch the eye, and most passers-by probably never gave them a second glance.

The graffiti likely dates back to the 1990s, part of a campaign dubbed “Obey Giant,” by artist Shepard Fairey, a former student at the Rhode Island School of Design who has since gone on to create artwork for the likes of former President Barack Obama.

Thirty years later, the historic bridge is set for replacement. One lane travel over the Great Road bridge will cause some traffic delays through summer 2022, according to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, with a temporary light set up to control alternating lanes beginning on Friday, May 14.

It’s unclear if the markings on the bridge barriers were made in North Smithfield, or if the safety walls were transported from elsewhere, such as Providence, where Fairey and his “posse,” started the campaign in the early 1990s. The markings were more often seen in sticker form, with tens of thousands produced and placed in public spaces internationally during Fairey’s time at the city-based arts college.

According to RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin, it’s common to relocate barriers, and the one in question predates the agency’s records system, which began in 2007.  And St. Martin did not know where the barrier will end up following the $5.2 million bridge replacement project, or if the concrete structure will remain in use.

If the stencil markings were placed there by the artist himself, the graffiti could have some value. Fairey went on to design the well known, “Hope,” poster for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, and his work is now included in collections at The Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Fairey’s press team did not immediately respond to an email inquiry from NRI NOW.

The bridge, a popular route through town to neighboring Woonsocket, will see major work begin next Friday night, although preparation has been underway since November.  On May 14, RIDOT will begin replacing a portion that carries Great Road over the Providence & Worcester rail line between Lapre Road and Meadowbrook Drive.  

The department reportedly expects moderate travel time delays, but will monitor traffic conditions and adjust the traffic signal timing to minimize waiting at the light, according to a release on the project.

The temporary traffic pattern also will prohibit access to Lapre Road at Great Road, but a signed detour will be established at the next side street, Hillview Avenue, to allow access to homes in this neighborhood.

The project will replace the structure in phases, with the west side demolished first. In approximately six months, the department will shift traffic onto the newly built portion so it can demolish and replace the eastern side of the bridge. Two-way traffic will be restored in summer 2022 and the entire project done in summer 2023, according to RIDOT.

The bridge, which reportedly carries an average of 13,200 vehicles per day, is 89 years old and structurally deficient. Its deteriorated and crumbling state is visible, and Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski commented on the necessity of the project this week.

“It’s sorely needed,” Zwolenski said at the Town Council meeting Monday. “The conditions for pedestrian travel out there – it’s just non-existent.”

RIDOT is reportedly using accelerated bridge construction methods with pre-cast concrete bridge components to shorten the duration of construction by several months. The May 14 date is dependent on utility coordination, and if necessary could be postponed one week to Friday night, May 21.

RIDOT also warns that all construction projects are subject to changes in schedule and scope depending on needs, circumstances, findings, and weather.

As for Fairey’s work – or its replication – travelers will soon see if the barrier remains. Those traveling southbound on 146A can currently view the faded markings on the second barrier on the right hand side, although that could quickly change as work gets underway.

To learn more about the artist, visit https://obeygiant.com.

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