There is a rich legacy of art and railroad history along the route where The Traveling Man sculptures reside on Good-Latimer between Swiss Avenue and Elm Street in the historic area of Deep Ellum on the east side of Downtown Dallas.
Reaching back to 1873 when the area first arose from the prairie, Deep Ellum was known for its commerce and manufacturing as well as its notorious nightlife and live music. Due to the businesses in the area, it became a hub for the railroads and the Texas & Pacific Railway set up their Dallas office at 2528 Elm Street and the building is still identifiable due to a faded mural on the east side of the building promoting “23 hours to St. Louis” rail service.
As part of this railroad activity a tunnel was constructed along Good-Latimer between Swiss Avenue and Elm Street that ran beneath Gaston Avenue and allowed heavy locomotives to run above. This long stretch of tunnel became the unofficial gateway into Deep Ellum and generations of Dallasites took delight in honking their horns or revving their motors as they passed through the narrow lanes.
As fun as the tunnel was to drive through, it was visually lacking ambiance until artist Frank Campagna - the “godfather” of Deep Ellum - got his hands on it in 1993. By assembling an amazing array of artisans who painted murals all along the support columns and walls of the tunnel, they turned the once drab facade into a popular stop for tourists and photographers wanting an edgy and urban backdrop.
“It was in 1993 that we first painted the tunnel,” said Campagna who owns Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum. “There were a total of 36 murals and some were there for the duration and others were rotated out over the years with other artists leaving their mark. Some of the Deep Ellum businesses contributed $200 and that was applied toward supplies and the artists. We painted the tunnel a total of four times up until it was taken down to make way for the DART light rail in 2007.”
The murals became a lightning rod for residents, businesses, and fans of the quirky neighborhood as they protested loudly when they found out that Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) planned to destroy the tunnel, level the land and install light rail. DART quickly realized that a rail station with some nods toward the history wasn’t going to suffice for Deep Ellum...and this is where sculptor Brad Oldham and artist / Academy Award-winning filmmaker Brandon Oldenburg came into play with a $1.4 million commission.
Embracing the history of Deep Ellum, Oldham and Oldenburg created the 3-piece exhibit as a welcoming and thought-provoking installation with a generous nod to the railroad and music history of Deep Ellum by having the figures built of a polished metal sheeting with 10,000 chunky stainless steel rivets. It’s also worth noting that the backstory to the figures is that an old locomotive engine was buried beneath an Elm tree; however, some gin splashed upon the roots of the tree and a modern day transformer-troubadour-traveling man emerged.
The figures are designed to be viewed from south to north along Good-Latimer in this order:
Awakening: Those that are guitar savvy will recognize this piece as just the top portion of his head emerges from the gravel surrounded by little bird sculptures.
Location: On the southeast corner of Good-Latimer and Elm Street, adjacent to Louie Louie’s Dueling Piano Bar.
Waiting on a Train: This robot man is found reclining against a support beam from the old tunnel with a smile on his face, legs crossed, and strumming a guitar.
Location: On the southwest corner of Good-Latimer and Gaston Avenue (at 2586 Gaston Avenue.)
Walking Tall: This figure is the most recognizable figure of the three standing at a commanding height of 38’ of with a smile on his face and arm raised for one of his bird friends to alit upon. Visually, he appears slender but he weighs in at a staggering 35,000 pounds.
Location: Directly across from the Deep Ellum DART station at 450 N. Good-Latimer.
Fun Fact: The birds adjacent to all the figures are designed to be sat upon; look at the backs of the birds and they are fashioned into seats!
While details are readily known about the figures, sculptor Brad Oldham was asked about his inspiration for the birds that surround the figures he replied,
“The BIRDS in Deep Ellum represent the souls of the artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs past and present. They are mirror finish so you can see yourself in the past and present."
The year 2019 marks the 10th anniversary for the Traveling Man figures.