Ghost Bikes: Problematic Public Art

by M. L. Morrill

This was an essay for a sculpture class. Any and all critique is welcome
Thanks, Michael!

Ghost Bikes: Problematic Public Art

The history of Public Art is filled with works related to memorializing the death of fallen people. Whether it is a large national monument for soldiers that died in battle, or a collection of candles and stuffed animals where a child died from a stray bullet, mortality is a constant theme in the course of public art. Within the culture of cycling there is a practice of memorializing cyclists who have died after being struck by a vehicle by placing an all white Ghost Bike at the scene of the accident. There are several things I find contentious with the practice. Firstly, I find it preys on and contributes to the larger culture of fear. It objectifies the death of a person into a piece of propaganda. Finally, they are ugly.
In all my years of riding up and down and throughout the west coast, I had seen very few ghost bikes, that was until I came to Chicago. The first ghost bike I saw was on Western and Augusta. It was a memorial for Isai Medina, and was a bike that even if it were not painted white would still catch your eyes for it was a homebuilt chopper.
Further north on Western, in the mess of intersections between Western Avenue, Logan Boulevard and Interstates 90 and 94 was the ghost bike for Tyler Fabeck, who died on April 20th, 2008. This is the bike that changed my opinion of ghost bikes. Here I was in one of the worst intersections to be on a bike, and I am face to face with the headstone of someone who died doing the exact same thing in the exact same place as I was. That’s when my opinion of ghost bikes changed. Previous to that moment I saw ghost bikes as a sign of community or subculture, not death or memory. The last thing I want to be reminded of while I am riding my bike is the fact that I might die. Do not equate this to “harshing my mellow’ (because riding in Chicago is hardly ever mellow), instead know that I am always aware of the possibility of death as a result of a mistake by a driver myself, or even just random chance. In fact, it is because of my impending death that I choose to ride a bike and not waste hours of my day waiting for buses, or trains. The bike is what crimethinc would call a means of daily liberation. Though I would say more simply that it is a way to get from one place to another and have the best, –most terrifying/exhilarating time getting there. My point is, riding a bike is a way, my way, of living in a society of people obsessed with their mortality. It is a break from worrying about school, food, the decline of the world, or if I am gonna get wasted tonight. When I ride my only concern is that I get from point A to point B, as fast as possible.
However, I know this view is not shared with everyone, though I did not know how few people shared it until I brought the topic of ghost bikes up with my class. Where I assumed that the driving public wouldn’t understand the bikes as a memorial, the majority of the class did. Where I find ghost bikes problematic, they found a result that was somewhat positive, in a situation that is otherwise tragic.
One point of contention that the class agreed with is the objectification of a person’s death into a political statement. Like I said earlier, I used to see ghost bikes as a sign of community, or subculture. To me a ghost bike was a symbol for how tough it is to bike in the city, and therefore a sign as to how tough I was for riding a bike in said city. Politically the ghost bike is used to make the deceased into a martyr for a cause, and again tell the public the dangers of cycling. Where the rider had was “one of us” a part of the larger subculture, riding as a political statement. When really they chose to ride a bike because they couldn’t afford another form of transportation, or their driver’s license was suspended, or any other position estranged from the mostly white, mostly liberal ideological movement.
My last point of contention is aesthetics. I find the aesthetics of ghost bikes to be plain ugly. For the bikes are usually hurriedly assembled and painted white ten speeds without care or concern to the deceased or what kind of size and style bike they rode. The bikes are stripped of any valuable or reusable parts such as tires, brakes, a chain. This is to reduce the chances of theft of part or the whole bike. To this I ask, why does someone else taking parts matter if the builder of the ghost bike is doing the same. What does it mean to memorialize a person with an inoperative bike? I understand not wanting to “waste” or leave a nice bike unused, but if I were to die in an accident, I would not want to be remembered because of a cheap shitty bike, which I would never ride, is locked up to a light pole in front of a liquor store on Michigan Avenue.