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The Visionary Behind The Bay Lights : Local Legend Ben Davis

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We here at like to show love to the people who make cities like San Francisco and New York special. That’s why we’re doing a series called Local Legends. This is our chance to hip you to some of the strange, brilliant, and unique folks who populate these towns and give them the character that people from around the world have come to love.  Meet Ben Davis, the man they call ‘The Visionary” behind the amazing light sculpture on the SF Bay Bridge.


The Bay Lights, on the Western expanse of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco CA Photo:

Ben Davis has been putting his brains behind public projects throughout his carreer, and he doesn’t think small.  The public infrastructure projects he’s worked on total more than $15 Billion in public investment.  He’s a creative director and an ideas man, during his 21 years in San Francisco he’s helped to develop the names and visual identities of The Bay Bridge Seismic Safety Projects, Transbay Transit Center and Presidio Parkway.  But the work he may be best known for are The Bay Lights, he’s the man who first envisioned the largest LED light sculpture in the world, seen by hundreds of thousands of people by night, and an estimated 50 million people saw it during it’s first two years in existence.  He is the Founder and Chief Visionary officer of, a team who you may want to pay attention to, because they plan on bringing more amazing public art to San Francisco and the world.  They dream big, and so far they build big.  The Bay Lights will be back lighting up the bay permanently on January 30th, 2016.  We are very excited to see what the future holds for amazing public art in San Francisco, and we are very happy to share our Q&A with a man who is truly dedicated to bringing more of it to our city, Local Legend, Ben Davis.

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SF Local Legend Ben Davis

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People close to The Bay Lights project say you are “The Visionary” behind the project, what do you say your title is?
I had the raw conceptual vision that the Bay Bridge could become a canvas of light and decided to act on it. Artist Leo Villareal is the creator of the refined artistic vision you see. I have the honor of being the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Illuminate, the group founded to help bring The Bay Lights into existence. We aim to alter the arc of human history through the creation of transformational works of public art. We’ve got an ambitious agenda ahead.

Was it dangerous installing the lights? Have you ever climbed the bridge?
The installation crews who hang from the side of the bridge at night are brave but safe. I have walked the cable of the Bay Bridge several times. The top of the bridge is one of the calmest most peaceful places I have ever been. For me it’s a place of preternatural calm, a place of personal reflection.

You can see everything from up there. The geometry of the bridge from that point of view is fascinating. You can look down and see the bridge’s shadow and reflection in the water. When you stand still you can feel the non-stop vibration of the cars and trucks below. The entire city is at your feet.

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What does it cost to keep those 25,000 lights burning? What percentage of the bill is the city paying for?
The power bill is about $30 a night, about $11,000 a year. Roughly 50 million people saw the artwork during their initial two-year run, from 2013 to 2015. So the public impact versus financial expenditure is impressive.

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After covering the initial cost of installation with private donations in the millions, the maintenance costs of The Bay Lights is tiny fraction of the Bay Area Toll Authority budget, using some rough short math Ben estimated that the daily cost of the lights is equal to 115 tolls a day. That’s 115 out 270,000 drivers who cross the bridge daily. Photo:

“We were absolutely committed to high ethical standards, which rules out all corporate contributions that seek in some way to compromise the integrity of the artwork”

How was fundraising for The Bay Lights, was it difficult?
It was difficult indeed. We were absolutely committed to high ethical standards, which rules out all corporate contributions that seek in some way to compromise the integrity of the artwork. We turned away as much money as we raised. We decided early on that we would live or die with integrity. In the end, it was the generosity of an inspired community that came to our rescue. I am forever grateful for that.

Who were some of the big corporate donors that you decided not to take money from?
Requests to put a logo on the bridge seemed to come in weekly. Our answer was always no. The artwork would remain pure, the work of the artist. It would not be open to other interpretations. And never ever a logo.

Many people accused us of being too exclusive initially. There were repeated calls to let the public control the artwork through a variety of proposed apps. But we held firm–with Leo leading the way. The result was very positive. The Bay Lights are free from the “distraction of interaction.” This makes them accessible to all. You can be with the lights without having any sense of obligation to take action. They are monumental in scale and hold a place beyond our reach, a place of pure reflection. Would the heavens be more majestic if we could rearrange the stars on our iPads? I think not.

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The Bay Lights has some 25,000 individual LED. The patterns to which they illuminate were created by the internationally renowned artist Leo Villateal. As Ben puts it: The artist’s algorithm constantly changes, in fact the pattern you see on the bridge is always different. Photo:

“The beautiful thing about The Bay Lights is that Illuminate will be gifting the artwork to people of the State of California”

So who owns the lights?
The beautiful thing about The Bay Lights is that Illuminate will be gifting the artwork to people of the State of California. In exchange, the State will become stewards of the installation. There is an historic precedent for this: In 1986 during the Bay Bridge’s 50th anniversary a private group put the necklace lights on the bridge. People loved those lights and three years later they became a permanent fixture of the bridge. In that same spirit, The Bay Lights will become a permanent fixture of the western span in 2016. The artwork will belong to you and me and the people of California, literally. I love that.

What Illuminate’s next big project in San Francisco?
The ‘LightRail’ project by George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza is the world’s first subway-responsive light sculpture. It will run from One Market all the way to Van Ness on Market Street, showing the real time movements of underground BART and MUNI trains on a rail of light above the street. When a train is going by beneath you, you will see a whoosh of light go by overhead. Magic.

That sounds like a huge undertaking, how do you get through the bureaucracy?
We have already been granted permission to install the artwork from all the relevant government bodies. This includes the Board of Supervisors, SFDPW, SFPUC, SFMTA, SF Planning, SF Arts Commission, SF Fire Department and more. There is tremendous support for the project. We will soon set about raising the $10 million dollar to make the project a shining reality, further elevating the region’s world-class art stature. As part of the project we will also update the bulbs of the old Path of Gold street lights that run along market to make them a lot more energy-efficient and also to give off much prettier light that the current high pressure sodium “crime lights” of the 1970s. We will be lifting Market Street from half a century of illumination doldrums, restoring it as a place of lingering destination rather than a route of hurried passage.

I guess when you’ve already done something as successful as The Bay Lights, you get carte blanche for your next project, that is awesome. Did you ever have a day working on the lights where you thought, ‘this is bad, I’m having a miserable time, this is going to be impossible?

That’s probably most days. If it was easy, anyone could do it. The path to elegance is always arduous. You work really hard so that other people can seamlessly enjoy the purity of expression and never see the work. I’ve given everything I had to this project. You have to have extraordinary patience, faith and belief. You have to be fueled and lifted daily by love. There are moments when you have to suspend the definition of what is classically called ‘success’. Success lies in trying. Sometimes that must be accomplishment enough. The Bay Lights always had a low probably of becoming a reality. The trick was finding the enough people to believe in an “impossible” idea. The impossibility of it all actually inspired people to ask: ‘how can I help’. It attracts the kind of people who willingly commit themselves to solving problems, to joining a cause greater than themselves.

I think the work Illuminate is doing is very important. What we are doing on the surface is deconstructing and reconstructing permissions, applying technology in ways no one thought of applying it, and attracting resources no one had planned on spending. That beautiful in the name of art. But it’s exactly the same set of skills–the set of muscles we need to begin to exercise–when it comes to the greatest challenge humankind has yet to face: climate change and rising seas. By aligning people around a transcendent cause, we are redefining what’s possible.

What was your first job in the city?
Project Manager for an environmental consulting firm. I quit…about six seconds before getting fired.

What happened? Sounds like you were protecting the environment?
It wasn’t quite like that, it was more guns for hire. I came to the conclusion that I had to follow my passion, I quit out of principle. I’ve had many jobs though, I was a server for 8 years, a government bureaucrat for 8 years, a bike messenger, a pot scrubber, and more. It’s all good training for what I’m doing now.



Are you a ‘burner’?
I have been to Burning Man many times. I find it a great source of inspiration, although I do not self identify as a ‘burner’.

“I will say that The Bay Lights are covered in playa dust, metaphorically.”

I will say that The Bay Lights are covered in playa dust, metaphorically. Burning Man is clearly embedded in the DNA of the project. I was at Burning Man in 2010 when the theme was ‘Metropolis.’ I was attracted to the shared spectacle of art, and how this generous city came together from nothing. At the same time I had a sense of rage that all this energy and creativity goes out to the dessert and after a week it gets simply burnt up and the beauty of it dissipates into the night sky. I wanted to see that energy and generosity applied to a place where people live and let is stay longer. Leo finds his artistic voice at burning man. It’s the first place he experimented with LEDs and simple code.

How has San Francisco changed?
The transformation since I’ve been here has been extraordinary. SF is one of those cities that experienced urban decay going into the the 60’s and 70s, now we’ve had 40 years of revitalization. Behold the Embarcadero. Take a stroll in Hayes Valley. Bike along Valencia Street. Wander Crissy Field and the Presidio. It’s an increasingly attractive place to live, ever more walkable and accessible by transit. It’ll only get better when the Transbay Center comes on line. You really won’t need or want a car. Of course, the desirability of where we live brings with it gentrification. You need money to live here. That’s a difficult issue. I’m delighted that The Bay Lights will fill all comers with awe for years to come, and that no one will ever need to buy a ticket.


If you would like to hear more about the future of The Bay Lights, Ben Davis, Saeed Shahmirzai, & moderator JD Beltran will be hosting an interactive forum and Brunch November 15th at that dope new venue The Village.

The Village Impacts: “Learn about behind-the-scenes action, dicsuss the impact of public art, and bring your questions about The Bay Lights to key figures behind the project.”  All proceeds will benefit further artistic endeavors from Illuminate and their partnership with The Village Impacts.
Tickets HERE



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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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1 Comment

  1. LadyBee
    November 12, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Where is Amy Critchett in this discussion? She was absolutely instrumental in bringing the Bay LIghts to San Francisco.