Guerrilla Public Service: The Man Who Would Be Caltrans

Photo by Bill Smith

PASSING NORTH THROUGH DOWNTOWN ON THE 110 FREEWAY toward Pasadena, between the Third and Fourth Street overpasses, artist Richard Ankrom found himself suddenly confused by the lack of official signage for the 5 North exit. Not clearly labeled overhead like signs for I-5 South, those for the 5 North, which occur two miles later, are haphazardly stuck on a roadside traffic pole, an afterthought at best. Ankrom could have called Caltrans and officially complained, further burdening the beleaguered civic bureaucracy. But being an artist, he did the next best thing:

He fixed it.

That is to say, following explicit specifications he found on the Internet and verified in the field, he crafted a red-white-and-blue "5 shield" and green "North" sign out of 0.080 mm 5053 aluminum, covered it with zinc chromate primer and Pantene colors, added an "age patina" of gray paint, and even special-ordered button reflectors, which are discontinued and stockpiled in a warehouse in Tacoma, Washington. (He had to tell the pesky warehouse clerk it was for a movie -- not altogether untrue, as it turns out.)

After stashing the sign and a ladder in the roadside shrubbery -- and stenciling the side of his truck with the logo "Aesthetic De-Construction" -- he parked on the Third Street bridge just north of the existing sign, set out two orange traffic cones, donned an orange safety vest and hardhat, and physically mounted his homemade handiwork (taking care to sign the back first). He even mocked up a phony invoice, in the event that anyone objected. Yet despite legitimate road crews working the same stretch of freeway, no one seemed to notice.

Nor, in all probability, would they ever have, the sign having functioned perfectly fine since August 5, 2001, when he first erected it. Except that, being an artist, Ankrom felt compelled to document and display his actions in the form of a 10-minute installation video, which was shown at small gallery events and his own Brewery loft during the Art Walk two weeks ago, and has been posted on Netbroad caster.com since November. Opening on a GPS view of L.A.'s 527 miles of freeway, the video documents the entire artistic process from start to finish, culminating in the installation itself, which was witnessed by 11 observers (including the woman who once rescued the Chicken Boy statue from a downtown diner), three of whom were armed with video cameras. It also lists his accomplices by name, including the guy who gave him the haircut that made him look passably respectable, begging the question whether "criminal barberage" is a crime.

And then, against a backdrop of Martin Denny cocktail jazz and Jerry Goldsmith's theme from In Like Flint, there is Ankrom himself, eyes glowing pink in the pre-dawn light, looking like Satan, proclaiming: "I have taken it upon myself to manufacture and install these missing guide signs to ease the confusion and traffic congestion at this section of the 110 freeway."

Like the best art, almost nothing about this action was arbitrary. Interstate 5 links Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest, where as a child in Washington state, Ankrom used to dream of the pulsing megalopolis which lay Oz-like at the other end of it. Disillusioned with two months of junior college, he hitchhiked to California, where he has been self-employed for the past 20 years -- as a commercial sign painter. (His work can be seen at Ross Dress for Less, in the Moulin Rouge section atop the parking garage at the Universal CityWalk and in several hundred feet of relief-wall lettering at the Santa Anita Racetrack, which he completed while on the end of a 90-foot snorkel lift.) As antecedents, he cites performance artists like Chris Burden, who once had himself nailed to the top of his Volkswagen, as well as De Stijl, a Dutch magazine and group co-founded by Mondrian, which advocated an art which would invisibly blend into its surroundings.

"Essentially it's a conceptual piece," says Ankrom today from the imagined safety of his downtown loft. "It's such a broad swath -- it overlaps into performance and installation and public art and all these other things. I think the most interesting things are controversial. And I'm out on a limb too, because I don't know where I'm going to go with this now. But this is my idea of art. Art should be incorporated more into the government's system of design and concept."

He christens this new utilitarian commando aesthetic "Guerrilla Public Service."

Ankrom's past work generally incorporates the element of social critique. He has fashioned a series of acrylic hatchets, axes and medieval broadswords featuring flower petals suspended in the transparent blades. In response to the L.A. riots, he created a number of neon Taser guns, many with S/M overtones, which used active electric arcs. And long before the recent power crisis, he envisioned an art completely autonomous from the power grid, in the form of a satellite which would collect solar energy and microwave it back to a sculpture installation on Earth. (He plans to discuss the project with an upcoming delegation from the French consulate.)

 

But it's his recent additions to the 110 freeway, once known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway between here and Long Beach, which currently preoccupy him -- in no small part due to the legal ramifications which still remain largely unexplored.

"I think the worst thing they could charge me with would be trespassing and defacing property, which I believe are still misdemeanors," he says. "But whatever the consequences are, they are. And that would again be part of the documentation of this thing. Even if I went to court, I'd get a public attorney, get a video-friendly judge, and videotape that. I wouldn't be able to pay the fine, so I'd have to do public service, which is sort of what I'm doing anyway. So it all comes full circle. But I would think if they were smart they wouldn't touch it, because it would only make them look worse.

"I really wasn't trying to give Caltrans a black eye," he insists. "It's too easy."

--Paul Cullum

Salon Tales: Sonny and Chair

I HATE GOING TO HAIR SALONS. I dread the small talk. But soon after I moved to an apartment in Pasadena near Caltech, my split ends were screaming for attention. I strolled over to the nearest hair place, a joint called Nippers, and was greeted in near darkness by owner Sonny Hughes, a loose-limbed 50ish guy with a soft twang and a macho swagger. The back of his old rock 'n' roll T-shirt read "See the Music."

"Just gimme a minute here . . ." He turned his attention to a boy in the swivel chair and flipped his young customer's hair with an abracadabra flourish like my grandma tossing salad with chopsticks. Ta-Dah. Sonny stood back, as if waiting for gasps of pleasure, then released the guy from the chair. Spidery strands of wet hair draped the boy's sheepish face, and when Sonny wasn't looking, the guy gave me a wincing smile.

I couldn't decipher that smile because I was distracted by the room. Neil Diamond songbooks and martial-arts manuals perched meaningfully by the shampoo station. Countertops were crammed with dusty frames: snapshots of Sonny and Tony Curtis, Sonny and Steven Seagal, Sonny and Phil Spector, Sonny caught midair doing a chopsocky Spider-Man leap. In each of these celebrity photos, Sonny affects an amusing I'm-so-debonair-I-don't-know-why-I'm-here expression, missing only the fez that would complete the moment.

A minute after Sonny started playing with my hair -- throwing everything over my face and declaring, "Sexy" -- he methodically began talking. He told me he's a jujitsu instructor for the LAPD. He said he once had a band that scaled the Top 20. Miming handlebar revving with stunning gusto, he spoke of riding bikes with Steve McQueen. "When I go in for auditions, people say I'm a natural -- I guess it's in the blood," he shrugged.

"One day I was this Indian kid, 6 years old, picking strawberries in Oklahoma, and the very next thing, I was living with the Old Man and his kids in Beverly Hills -- there were maids, drivers, you know, it was a real culture shock."

I must have looked confused because he plopped down his scissors, disappeared into the back and emerged with photographic evidence: him towering over "the old man" at a birthday bash, a black-and-white blowup of "the old man" as young Andy Hardy feted by the studio . . . His dad is Mickey Rooney. "I've got more," smiled Sonny, eagerly.

Glad I finally caught on, he resumed the hair snipping, grooving on his own internal wave. When he gained good cutting rhythm, he started on his professional history. One day, while working as an assistant on an unnamed B-picture -- "which happened to star a fellow by the name of Dennis Hopper" -- he jokingly started mimicking the set hairstylist's flamboyant tics. He apparently did this so well that an unnamed leading lady mistook him for the real thing. And apparently, the leading lady loved what he did for her so much she later dated him and funded his passage through beauty school. (Perhaps he wrote term papers on Shampoo.)

 

As he went on and on, it dawned on me that Sonny was a modern-day shaman and that Nippers was less a hairdressing salon than a storytelling salon. When he finished, my hair was still dripping wet. He extended an offer of generosity: "Want a towel dry?" Towel dry?

Combing out my hair at home, I was shocked to see that the hair to the left of my face was an inch and a half longer than the hair on the right.

"Sonny!! . . ." I shrieked down the phone.

Fifteen minutes later, I was back in the chair. Sonny picked up his scissors. "So listen," he said, as if I'd never left. "Many years ago, I wrote this script . . ."

--Sandi Tan

Open Letters: The Shrinking Jean Pool

LAST WEEK, ON THE WAY HOME FROM a press screening, I popped into a local clothing store because it struck me that I had bought literally one shirt in the last six months, and since I'm going to Cannes next week, perhaps I should buy a new shirt for the occasion. I'd had my eye on the store for some time, since it's in my neighborhood (right on Beverly, actually), and the clothes in the windows looked promising -- which these days mostly means not too young. But as soon as I walked inside, I sussed out that it was completely and entirely age-inappropriate. And just as I came to this forlorn conclusion, in front of several cropped and appliquéd T-shirts that made me think yet again that Hello Kitty has had far too great an influence on American sportswear, one of the sales women said to me, "We have larger sizes in the back."

"Oh," I said, "I was beginning to think I had stumbled into a kids' store."

She didn't laugh. Neither did I.

This is the second time this has happened to me in this city in two years. Nowhere else have I had this experience, not in New York, certainly, where I've shopped in Nolita boutiques with far less apprehension than in Los Angeles; not even in Paris, where the women are as slender as whippets. Though, you never know, maybe the French clerks are actually silently laughing Mon Dieu, c'est incroyable every time my ENORMOUSLY FAT ASS, an ass SO ENORMOUS, SO ELEPHANTINE it could never ever possibly FIT into anything REMOTELY fashionable, walks -- no, make that WADDLES -- through the front door. And then I think: What does it mean when a women's clothing store only displays its 0's and 2's and 4's and maybe even the errant size 6, leaving its apparently shaming 8's, 10's and (mon Dieu) its 12's discreetly tucked away in the back? Do these stores think that 0's and 2's would be offended by the very sight of, say, a pair of size-10 extra-low-rise jeans? Offended that a store such as this, a store this fashionable, this hip, this young, would insult its customers with the implication that they, too, either have -- or one day might have -- an ass so large and cushionlike that, in the mortal words of Spinal Tap, it's better for pushin'? I'm not sure. So I left the store and went home, whereupon I immediately, and without a trace of regret, poured myself a 200-calorie glass of red wine, and then another. As K. says, at least we'll always have Paris.

Yours in struggle against oppression and size-2 Earl Jeans,

Manohla Dargis


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