EastBay Today

Feature
Posted February 7, 2017

Made of Steel

Alumnus Martin Hoang brings the legendary Bay Bridge Troll 
back to life at Cal State East Bay

The images you see here depict a craft with roots reaching back centuries, far removed from today’s technology-saturated world. But there is a connection: The beauty of these images is, at least in part, a result of modern digital manipulation. Just as metalwork relies on a blend of science and aesthetics, so does photography.

Captured in the Arts & Education shop at Cal State East Bay in spring of 2015, these images were made by Martin Hoang (BFA ’16, Graphic Design), a skilled digital artist and designer. Hoang entered the spread into the 2016 Adobe Design and Achievement Awards, where out of 5,300 international submissions, he was one of just 34 finalists.

The blacksmith is Bill Roan, Cal State East Bay science department technician by day, and artist-blacksmith by vocation (usually at night). Hoang and Roan have formed a friendship based on sharing knowledge. This is their story. 

Bill Roan uses an arc welder to attach two pieces of steel.

Martin Hoang recalls the day his life and Roan’s were fused together: In a Basics of New Media class in late 2013, Hoang noticed an older student struggling with an Adobe Photoshop assignment and leaned over to help. He immediately recognized a local icon on his classmate’s screen — the Bay Bridge Troll, an 18-inch-tall steel creature with elongated humanoid body, dragon’s face, goat horns, wagging tongue and webbed feet, wielding an ironworker’s spud wrench like a pool cue. The coincidence was too strong to ignore: The men got to talking, Roan identified himself as the troll’s creator and a friendship was sparked.

Tongs hold steel heated to the point of malleability as Roan works metal with a chisel and hammer.

The original Bay Bridge troll was born of tragedy. On October 17, 1989, the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake killed 63 people, injured thousands and collapsed a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span. An Oakland structural steel fabricator was hired to make replacement girders; Roan worked as a craftsman in an adjacent shop, and created the troll to honor the repair team’s unstinting labor. In the process of affixing the nameless creature to the bridge without permission, the troll became an unlikely media star. Squabbles over its origin, ownership and commercialization ensued. Roan, who was offended by his employer’s idea of making miniature trolls to sell, ended up quitting the metal shop and coming to work at Cal State East Bay. “The fact that so many people died, and we were going to make a profit off this horrible, destructive force … I just didn’t think it was right,” Roan says.

The complicated story will be told by former ironworker — and Cal State East Bay Department of English Lecturer — John V. Robinson in an upcoming book. Robinson has spent decades writing about Bay Area bridges, and is interested in turning his attention to troll-lore, with a specific eye to Roan’s infamous design. “In 50 or 100 years this is just going to be a piece of mythology,” Robinson says. “I'd like to try to sort it out — or at least get everybody on the record — in one spot, between two covers as soon as possible.”

Roan’s gloved hand wields a chisel as a troll’s face emerges from smoking-hot metal.

For his project, Hoang asked Roan to recreate the original troll’s head while he photographed the process, and was thrilled to document a master artist plying his craft. “I was very focused on the technical aspects of the photographs themselves,” Hoang recalls of the evening when this image was captured. “But in the back of my mind, I was like a star-struck 12-year-old.” 

Hoang digitally manipulated his images of Roan and designed editorial spreads using them for his entry into the 2016 Adobe Design Achievement Awards. Hoang says Cal State East Bay helped him compete with students from top design schools. “I was literally the only student [at the awards ceremony] representing a state school,” he recalls. “I’m really thankful for all the East Bay faculty who helped me — and especially for Bill.” Recently graduated with a BFA in graphic design, Hoang is now working for Adobe in a contract role, and he’s back in the A&E shop at Cal State East Bay a couple evenings a month — this time, learning blacksmithing at Roan’s side.

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