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For most of the decade, L.A. painter-sculptor and installation artist Richard Ankrom drove the freeways through downtown L.A. with a sense of pride and satisfaction. Poised above the chaos of the 110 freeway, precisely on Gantry 23100, just before the 3rd Street overpass on the northbound Pasadena Freeway, was a perfectly crafted replica of an Interstate 5 North freeway directional sign intended, just like other Caltrans signs, to ease traffic congestion.
Ankrom had designed and surreptitiously installed the green Caltrans-perfect sign because one day while en route to his home at the Brewery Arts Colony, he spotted a distinct absence of signage denoting the best route to reach the I-5 North. So Ankrom opted to exercise guerrilla art with a purpose — easing traffic congestion on the 110 freeway.
The artist created an exact replica of a regulation Caltrans sign. He tailored a detailed red, white and blue “5 shield” and green “North” sign out of 0.08 millimeter–thick metal, resplendent with special-ordered button reflectors.
He says the sign was part of an art project titled “Guerrilla Public Service.” Ankrom also did it for a laugh at Caltrans’ expense. Who wouldn’t like to fool the state now and then?
The sign was so authentic that Caltrans officials let it remain in place for eight years, four months and 15 days, until its removal last month under a standard scheduled replacement. Ankrom had signed and dated the sign, for future identification and possible retrieval. But to his dismay, the precaution did not pay off. Indeed, Ankrom never had a chance to reclaim his artwork.
“I first found out via an online blog called Franklinavenue.com,” Ankrom recalls. The creator of the site “mentioned that the signs had been changed on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I drove out to look at the freeway site, then spent about eight hours online trying to figure out who at Caltrans was responsible for taking it down.
“I found out that Caltrans awarded the sign removal and installation contract to a subcontractor called Peterson/Chase. Under contract, they were to recycle the old signs.
“I ended up tracking down one of the employees who was actually aware of the work and who thought he had stashed it, only it wasn’t the right sign. He wasn’t aware that the authentic sign had my signature on the back, and didn’t check it. I then found out that my sign had been given to a Garcia Recycling, who had crushed it into a block.”
Ankrom tried frantically to locate the recycling bale containing his sign, but company policy prevented him from rescuing it. “The aluminum bales are going to China, and they are not willing to sell them to me, though I will keep trying before they go in a shipping container.”
Ankrom recalls that the installation process eight years ago had taken hours of painstaking organization, including disguising himself as a Caltrans worker, complete with short haircut, hard hat and orange vest.
At sunrise on August 5, 2001, armed with a fake invoice in case he was caught, he hid a ladder in a tree near the freeway and transported his replica sign artwork from his nearby Brewery home in a van emblazoned with an ominous logo: “Aesthetic De-Construction.”
After parking just minutes from the existing sign on the 3rd Street bridge, he cordoned off a safety zone with two regulation Caltrans orange traffic cones. The installation took nearly an hour to complete.
Friends recorded the entire process on camera, then edited it down to a 10-minute video that has been shown at several art galleries. The video includes the artistic process in its entirety, from the creation of the sign through to the installation.