By Kate Granruth
If you’re driving down Rugby Road on the way to Grounds, you can’t miss it. The bridge over the train tracks-—better known as Beta Bridge—somewhat resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. The walls and surrounding sidewalk are always covered in bright paint and an ever-changing selection of messages, from advertisements for club events—the Write Climate organization promoted its Earth Day art show by painting Beta bright green—to the more political or inspirational, like the current message that reads “Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams,” painted by African American fourth-year students approaching graduation.
Although the tradition is young, starting about 50 years ago, painting Beta Bridge has become a cornerstone of the UVA experience.
“It’s something that is so unique about UVA,” says Arianna Barkhordari, a third-year who recently painted Beta to advertise her a cappella group the AcHOOstics’ spring concert. “[It’s] really exciting for us to be able to paint Beta Bridge because it’s such a symbolic thing.”
But as a public forum, Beta Bridge can easily be turned into a weapon. In January, the historically black Zeta Phi Beta sorority painted the bridge to celebrate its founding. The morning after, the message was defaced with racist graffiti reading “It’s OK to be white,” a phrase commonly used by white supremacists. Prior to that, racist and homophobic slurs also appeared on the bridge in 2013.
But hateful messages are rare, and rather than shut down the tradition, the community self-policies—after the Zeta Phi Beta incident, students quickly covered over the racist graffiti.
“When you leave something up, there’s rules about it,” says Barkhordari, adding that “is such an honor code UVA kind of thing.”
The most exemplary display of Beta Bridge etiquette comes when the community is grieving. The words “Rest Easy Rehan,” which honors Rehan Baddeliyanage—a fourth-year student who passed away over spring break—have been on Beta since mid-March. “Nobody’s going to paint over that,” says Barkhordari. “That’s like, a respect thing.”
The record for longest-lasting message on Beta Bridge is held by the “Hoos for Hokies,” which was painted after the 2007 mass shooting at longtime rival Virginia Tech. That message lasted for 53 days, until it was finally painted over by local Hokies. The new message read, “Thanks Hoos <3 the Hokies. See you Nov. 24!” referring to the annual football matchup between the rivals, and signifying a step in the process of returning to normalcy.
Though community members also sometimes paint the bridge, it more often captures the essence of the university on a given day, and the honor code that lies at the heart of the school.
Kate Granruth is arts and entertainment editor at The Cavalier Daily.