Henry Rollins: Public Space and Private Property

Henry Rollins: Public Space and Private Property

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

For the last few days, I have been driving a pal visiting from the United Kingdom to and from the Cinefamily theater on Fairfax for a film festival. Near Melrose is a massive billboard advertising the next season of Sons of Anarchy. I noticed that an artist (or artists) filled in the bottom of the billboard with multicolored spray paint. It’s hard to make out; it just looks like designs to me. If it’s words, I can’t read them, but it looks like it took a good deal of time.

Looking at this day after day has me thinking about public space and private property.

Does God exist? What happens after we die? Is there life on other planets? These questions are difficult to answer, but when it comes to the overwhelming confidence of billboards, there is no doubt. Is Dylan McDermott on a show called Stalker? As sure as death and litigation, yes.

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On some days, when I’m in the middle of an extra-dense bit of L.A. traffic, I look at the billboards and they seem more real than I am. Why am I here? Apparently, it’s to look at an image of a woman’s bare legs, her underwear around her ankles as she sits on a toilet. Wasn’t that one at Santa Monica and Sweetzer for a while?

As in a lot of big cities, L.A. streets are a target-rich environment, and we citizens are the target. One is fairly assaulted by billboard advertising. Some can actually change images, so if you get that perfect red light, you’ll be speed-bagged by multiple ads. It’s like getting silently screamed at.

Some are offended by the endless barrage of unavoidable, in-your-face images and the idea that we exist only to buy things, which is what the billboards’ density suggests. It has never bothered me personally. But I find the claustrophobic eye-poke interesting on many levels — especially when the doers get done back at.

Street-level advertising, such as the large posters slapped up on the sheet plywood around construction sites, are immediately prey to being drawn on or covered. Some of these modifications are quite cool. Third eyes are added to foreheads, fangs to mouths. I think it’s all well and good. If you put up something next to a sidewalk, whatever happens to it, that’s the world.

When the billboards high overhead get arted up, I always try to figure out how they did it, when and how much planning was involved. The act brings at least a few things together, and this is the part that interests me.

In the case of the Sons of Anarchy sign, I bet FX isn’t all that pleased that the image for which it probably paid quite a lot is partially covered over. It is, after all, private property, and the act of disfiguring it would be considered vandalism. I am willing to bet that a cop driving by would want to have a word with the artists up there spraying away (and that he wouldn’t be calling them artists). This is the fuck-you/no-fuck-you part. It’s private space in the public eyeline. The billboard is saying something. The idea that someone might be inclined to say something back shouldn’t strike anyone as odd. But it’s vandalism! Both a billboard and the tagging of it could be considered offensive, but only one carries the threat of arrest.
  The paint applied to the Sons sign could not have been spontaneous. You need the materials, the talent, the lookouts, the right time. You need to figure out how to get to the spot and, more important, how to get out. We already know what happens when we send hundreds of thousands of human assets and millions of tons of gear to a destination thousands of miles away for a prolonged period without planning how to get everything back out.

The fact that the spray-paint squad succeeded is some Zero Dark Thirty shit. Beyond the artwork itself — which amazes me because I can’t understand how someone could articulate that with a spray can, especially in a tense setting — it is my off-the-scale fear of cops that puts me in awe of these crews.

Many years ago, I used to put up flyers for upcoming shows for a band I was in. Light poles were our main target. We would do this several hours a day, for days on end. One guy on paste-up, the other on lookout. We hit Hollywood, Westwood, the Valley. It was nerve-racking to be looking out all the time, but I did it. I was busted a few times but bullshitted the cops and told them we were just hired to put up the fliers and didn’t know who the band was. We managed to escape getting jammed up.

I have no idea how effective this was for advertising our shows, or if that was even really the point. I think there was an element of confrontation we were looking for.

One of the things I like about the unauthorized augmentation of billboards is that it represents a different conversation — an op-ed or a cultural audit. Like a flower growing through asphalt, there is a beautiful defiance to it. I like the idea that, in an age of big money, there is still an artistic pulse. There’s an unwillingness to be completely nailed to the wall by ads for all this stuff that we probably don’t need.

The best part is that, often, the push-back is being perpetrated by art, which I don’t think we can live without.

It’s not as if the Sons of Anarchy sign was torched. It was made more interesting to look at. Then again, it’s not like I have a choice either way.

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