Defacing/correcting a LA highway sign for the public good

Defacing an interstate highway sign would not be seen favorably by many municipalities but what if a resident changed the sign for the better to help people get where they want to go?

In the early morning of Aug. 5, 2001, the artist and a group of friends assembled on the Fourth Street bridge over the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. They had gathered to commit a crime—one Ankrom had plotted for years.

Twenty years earlier while living in Orange County, Ankrom found himself driving north on the 110 freeway. As he passed through downtown Los Angeles, he was going to merge onto another freeway, Interstate 5 North. But he missed the exit and got lost. And for some reason, this stuck with him…

Since he was an artist and sign painter, Ankrom decided to make the I-5 North shield himself. He also decided that he would take it upon himself to install it above the 110 freeway…

Ankrom wanted his sign to be built to Caltrans’ exact specifications, which included designs able to be read by motorists traveling at high speeds. He copied the height and thickness of existing interstate shields, copied their exact typeface, and even sprayed his sign with a thin glaze overspray of gray house paint so that it wouldn’t look too new…

The whole installation took less than 30 minutes. As soon as the sign was up, Ankrom packed up his ladder, rushed back to his truck, and blended back into the city.

Sounds like there were no repercussions. Even so, wouldn’t the situation have been better if he had contacted Caltrans or local officials to get this done? I suppose that would not have been so thrilling. While this might be sold as doing public good, the riskiness sounds like it had its own attraction compared to just helping out California drivers.

Quick Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

In recent years, I’ve read about the exploits of Banksy, Britain’s most famous street artist. Therefore, I couldn’t pass up watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, a 2010 documentary about Banksy and street art. Here are a few thoughts about the film:

1. The main character of the film is not Banksy but a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta. Guetta ends up filming a lot of street artists, eventually meets Banksy, and then sets out himself to be an artist.

2. One of the most dramatic scenes of the film involves Disneyland where Banksy and Guetta stage an “art installation.” While the reaction of Disneyland is not a surprise, it is still interesting to hear how quickly and how seriously their security responded to the situation. The hidden world of happy Disneyworld and Disneyland is a fascinating subject.

3. The images and symbols of the street art world are interesting. Based on what is in this film, one could surmise that it is generally involves ironic or snarky takes on common images and ideas. Part of the allure is simply placing these pictures in prominent places – the artists have a fairly persistent threat of being caught. The other part of the allure is that the art is often “cheeky,” particularly Banksy’s work that challenges the status quo (see the paintings on the wall separating Palestine and Israel). Some of the images are new but many of them are repackaged or remixed.

4. The film also spends some time following how street art became lucrative art as collectors and the general public rushed to buy it. What began on the streets became institutionalized art that museums had to have in their galleries and wealthy people had to have on their walls. I would be curious to know if the value of these art pieces has risen in the last few years (particularly compared to more “traditional” art). The film doesn’t quite display an outright sneer toward this popularity, perhaps more of a wry and bemused grin.

5. I read something recently that suggested it is hard to know whether this is truly a documentary or not, particularly since it is a documentary that tracks the life of an amateur documentarian. Is this all smoke and mirrors or an authentic film about a burgeoning art movement? Have stories in the form of mock documentaries, such as The Office, ruined “truth” caught on camera forever? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters – the real question about most films is whether they are entertaining or not. And this film is pretty entertaining.

I found this film, on the whole, to be fun. The art is interesting, particularly watching the street artists working hard to put slightly subversive images in interesting places, and the characters even more so, particularly Guetta and his created alter ego (and the questions regarding the truth of his alter).

(Critics loved this film: the film is 98% fresh, 96 fresh reviews out of 98 total, at RottenTomatoes.com.)

Sociologist immerses himself in dumpster diving

Sociologist Jeff Ferrell spends “a couple of hours each day” dumpster diving. Here is some of what he has discovered while dumpster diving:

“There is a stereotype that (dumpster diving) is done mostly by the homeless. Yes, many were. But they were generous and helpful to me and helped me survive. But they were only one group doing this.”

Ferrell said there are several categories of trash pickers. “The good old boys,” he says, are an ethnic mix of mostly older males who drive pickup trucks and scrounge for scrap metal.

Some, Ferrell said, are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who came looking for the American dream and were left with “scraps of the American dream.”

Another group Ferrell describes a “freegans,” people who came out of the vegan movement and consider eating thrown away food less harmful to the earth than “going to Walmart to eat a vegetarian sandwich.”

Alternative artists also make frequent dumpster dives, searching for scrap metal, broken glass fragments and other material.

Ferrell’s friend, Dan Phillips, builds low-income homes in Texas made entirely from salvaged items.

“These people are not lazy, ignorant and shiftless,” said Ferrell. “They are remarkably resourceful and smart.”

The last group of participants, said the professor, are those who shop retail and don’t have to dumpster dive to survive.

This is not an area that many Americans spend much time thinking about but texts like Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge and the 2001 book, Rubbish!, written by two archaeologists working on the University of Arizona’s garbage project, shed some light on what happens to what we throw away.

It is also interesting to note that Ferrell seems to become quite involved in his research. The article also mentions his research time of five years as a graffiti writer (published in the book Crimes of Style).  In both of these instances, studying dumpster diving and graffiti, it would be near impossible to conduct a typical survey or even a broad range of interviews due to the more hidden and deviant nature of these activities. Additionally, this consistent insider perspective can provide much different information including insights into motivations and social hierarchies within these activities.