Part of my commute every day is on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). I’m lucky in that I’m commuting from south of downtown San Francisco to Millbrae: against the tide; I never have a problem getting a bench to myself. Sometime around January, something caught my eye on the platform. It was a great big bird.




Wow. There are a lot of things that these say to me. After the jump.

These are the works of Berkeley artist  Mick Wiggins. If you’d like to read his statement or other outsisde context before my observations, feel free. I only came upon this context after writing this.

First, these are ads for BART in a BART station (though none of these have the BART logo on them, except painted on the train that is a featured element winding pictaresquely in every background). Anyone reading this sign has already bought the product; this is a piece of art for the customer. As a marketer and a consumer I think this sort of advertising is really important and underused.

Environmentalism. By showing the train snaking through an unspoiled idyllic scene, and featuring prominently the flora and fauna native to the area, it reminds us that by choosing to take public transit rather than drive we’re doing the right thing to protect a greener future: easily forgotten amidst the cold concrete and sheet metal of the stations and trains. Actually, these go further than associating BART with lovely scenery; they make the train part of the scene in a way slightly more ideal than realistic: for instance, no BART line hugs the water the way it does in the Stellar’s Jay poster, as far as I know.

California/Bay Area jingoism. Like many in the Bay Area, I’m not originally from here. And though I could care less for the Giants or 49ers, I have tons of California and Bay Area pride, a peculiarly smug sort of liberal local pride. It attaches itself mostly to hallmarks of our progressive sociopolitical bubble: things like KQED/Quest, The Academy of Sciences and all the LEED-certified buildings being built, stem cell research going to be done in the area, the true diversity, the well-below-average homophobia, etc. These posters pull that local pride heartstring perfectly.

Arts patronage. These are clearly the works of a fine artist. BART, like British rail back in the day, is putting its faith behind a fine artist to make something great. Make no mistake, despite my analysis and my one gripe, below, I think these are fantastic works of art.

Upscaling the experience. BART stations are, by and large, fairly ugly. Most are underground; they often feel uninviting (South San Francisco station with it’s giant lenticular murals aside — I’ll post on those one day). And yet BART is one of the more pleasant, if more expensive, urban rail systems in the country, and they’re wise to hang a few paintings (note the painted frames and aged effects) amongst the ads to remind/convince us we’re taking a luxury system.

The economic angle. This campaign went up after October’s economic meltdown, though it was almost certainly commissioned well in advance. It’s worth considering that BART probably saw both a rising green trend in the area and economic warning signs as indicators that their ridership could soon be expanding. Good for them that they put on a spiffy suit and tie to receive their new guests. One might argue that they should have put the funds into replacing some of the older cars with sagging and stained upholstry seats and ragged carpeted floors, etc — but commissioning and hanging these posters probably cost far less than upgrading the cars, and to me that was money very well spent; thanks BART for supporting artists and uplifting riders’ days.

But OK, one complaint: the type. Bank frickin gothic? Mechanically stretched (subtly thank god) on the poppies one? I’d go geometric sans, or copperplate penmanship script, or if both of those were deemed too matchy matchy, at least something more sophisticated? Bank Gothic is Obey Your Thirst, BART. It is not Northern California liberal environmental naturalist gallery art! Here’s what I might have chosen instead.

London Underground posters. A last note — because who wants to end with griping about type — one of Wiggins’ stated influences is British Railway posters (two others are ukiyo-e and WPA posters which I also love).

E McKnight Kauffer posters from the Collection of the London Transport Museum

Quick history lesson: Before Frank Pick started as Publicity Officer for the London Underground, the posters for British Rail were straightforward and text-based. He worked with Edward Johnston to develop the cohesive identity including a quintessentially modern typeface (the template for Gill Sans) and roundrel logo (the template for the Mods). And he worked with fine artists including E McKnight Kauffer to put together thousands of awesome posters that increasingly evoked nature and destinations rather than the trains or transit.

Here’s to you, Mick Wiggins and BART. You’re in the fantastic company of Kauffer and Pick.

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