Browne stands in the middle of the intersection at Broadway and César Chávez, directly under the ornate golden dragons that guard the entrance to Chinatown. The normally bustling corner is quiet and empty, as is most of Los Angeles at two o’clock on a Monday morning. Browne wears a bandanna over his face, a black hoodie and a wild mess of curls atop his otherwise obscured head. He holds a wooden bird in one hand and a padlock in the other — a few feet of rope connect the two seemingly disparate objects. He stares up at his target — a stretch of telephone wire extended across the breadth of Broadway. In one deft motion, Browne tosses the bird and the lock toward the heavens. The rope wraps itself around the line, propelled by the weight of the lock. And all of a sudden what was once a naked length of wire is now an art installation — a “Berd.”
Millions of people see Browne’s art every day, which makes him one of the most exposed artists in Los Angeles. His work peppers the visual landscape of L.A. and is steadily eking its way up the coast to Santa Barbara, San Francisco and, now, New York. Browne doesn’t sign his pieces and they’re not for sale. He remains an anonymous public artist, biding time on the sidelines, gathering street credit and turning heads skyward while transforming the city into boundless gallery space, one telephone wire at a time.
“I don’t care that much about the credit. I think I’m more psyched that people are psyched about it.”
After much nagging (“I prefer to go out alone,” he kept saying), I finally got to tag along with Browne on a midnight art action. We started off on the Westside, came up short on the PCH (no telephone wire at Topanga) and settled for a scrawny line drooping over a sedate stretch of coastal highway in the Palisades around Sunset Boulevard. We eventually hopped on the 10 freeway and headed east toward Chinatown. My job was to keep an eye out for the fuzz and suggest un-Berded corners as we came upon them.
Browne hand cuts the Berds out of wood — nice wood, new wood, big sheets of Home Depot plywood, lest his Berds be sullied by the errant spots or slivers found in skanky scrap. He primes ’em, stencils ’em and ties ’em with a thick twine to a combination padlock. All told, he’s shelling out two dollars a Berd, not including labor and love. He launches them over power lines at various intersections — big intersections, important intersections, populated, well-traversed intersections, where they dangle and spin above our congested city, beckoning us to look upward. The kinetic component is but an accident that continues to grate on the young artist’s fragile nerves.
“It looks like it’s a fucking rodeo!” he says, confirming the suspicion I’d already been nursing that the L.A. native has actually never seen a rodeo. “It’s not the point, it just happens.”
Browne tossed his first Berd at the corner of Brooks and Pacific in his hometown of Venice earlier this year. What started off as “a way to escape and do something different and all that shit” has snowballed into a public art phenomenon. In the colorful world of street art, it’s a numbers game — the more Berds Browne throws, the more success and notoriety he gains.
He opted for the power line as gallery space after unfulfilling and, frankly, guilt-ridden experiences with stencils and wheat paste.
“I’m not fully psyched on spray-painting on property,” says Browne, street artist with a conscience.
As far as street art goes, Browne’s Berds are refreshingly whimsical — no heavy political messages, no biting social commentary, just a herd of happy Berds framed by an infinite swath of cloudless blue sky, whirring effortlessly above our metal boxes on wheels. Until they’re taken down, that is.
“Who takes ’em down?” I ask, shivering under a lamppost on Washington Boulevard near La Brea.
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “City employees, or something. See? I’m creating jobs,” he giggles, tossing up another Berd.