Pedaling northeast up Washington Boulevard toward Italian gastropub Scopa in Venice, Whitney Webster was falling in love on a first date.
It was late 2016 and Webster, 36, found herself counting the days until her new flame, Matt Liknaitzky, 40, returned from a two-week business trip.
He was back, quick to ask her to dinner. They had never done dinner before –– this was serious.
“For whatever reason,” Webster notes, “it felt just a little bit different.”
Describing a “good, instinctual vibe,” she explains how two months of early-morning hikes and coffee-shop hangouts had ripened her affection for Liknaitzky. They had graduated from friends-of-friends status to first-circle-core.
But distance had triggered a shift in their chemistry. As the couple coasted across Pacific Avenue and out of the friend zone, Webster noticed a white page wheatpaste poster on a utility box — above a red stenciled typewriter it had blotchy, black type that read, “The only lie I ever told you is that I liked you when I already knew I loved you.”
Her internal monologue, spelled out right in front of her.
This would be the first of many pieces, or WRDS, by L.A.-based street artist WRDSMTH that would play a supporting role in her budding romance.
“They really do make you stop and think of someone –– a specific person,” Webster says. “Not to say that other street art is passive, but WRDS force you to stop, read and put someone to mind.”
This was not WRDSMTH’s first cameo in a relationship, nor will it be his last, says Brody, the man “old enough to buy spray paint and young enough to know what to do with it” behind the respirator mask.
Created with a bucket of Earl’s Lube, a precut stencil and Montana Gold cans, his love letters have become a part of the city’s commentary –– note his eight-piece permanent installation downtown at the Bloc –– and an aphrodisiac to Angelenos, so much so that they’re sharing their stories with him and proposing marriage in front of his WRDs.
WRDSMTH began in 2013 on a whim as an “active hobby.” These love letters –– aspirational, motivational or romantic –– were economized edicts and affirmational notes Brody himself wished to have heard from strangers in a city still strange to him.
He was a Clevelander who moved to Chicago to avoid the cliché of being a writer who moved to L.A. Eventually the wordsmith landed here anyway, “doing time” in the advertising and freelance industries. Then he became a street artist.
He would post a new WRD almost daily to his Instagram page, pledging to do so until he reached 1,000 followers. Today, he's at 129,000.
“That’s the incredible journey for me; something so personal can also be universal.” —Brody
Out of the 1,000 or so renegade pieces Brody has pasted around the city, he estimates maybe 100 have survived municipal cover-ups. He has expanded WRDSMTH to 18 cities, from San Diego to Melbourne, Australia. Needless to say, his messages have resonated with Angelenos, and the rest of the world.
“All the pieces you see are very personal [to me]. The secret to this whole thing is that the words need to resonate with me, something in my life, and then I put them out there,” Brody says. “That’s the incredible journey for me; something so personal can also be universal. It just kind of confirms how we’re all in the same boat on this big blue marble –– we’re all thinking and feeling the same things.”
Fast-forward to two months after the dinner date at Scopa. A notification pinged on Webster’s phone while she was on vacation with her mother. Liknaitzky had sent her the familiar image of the decorated utility box on Pacific Avenue, which he had just spotted and wanted to share.
She told him she had seen it before their dinner date, and hoped that he had, too. He told her he hadn’t. He was “too busy noticing her.”
Webster and Liknaitzky have gone on to craft a collection in the hundreds of WRD-centerpiece selfies. Their method is strictly organic –– no online hunting or location giveaways. If they spot a WRD, all things come to a halt. Even Ubers.
Naturally, Liknaitzky turned to Brody last December for some help in framing the big question.
The plan was to plant a custom WRD with a quote from their song, “Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast” by Capital Cities. “I want it all. I want the best, For us. Say yes…” went up on the side of a dry-cleaning building on Washington Boulevard — the site of their first real date.
This time, Webster was the one who blew past it, until Liknaitzky found his own words to stop her.
“Someone’s going to propose!” she said, insisting they stay to watch, only to turn to see Liknaitzky half-kneeling with a ring.
“[WRDSMTH] has been a part of our love story from the very beginning,” Liknaitzky says, “I’m 40 years old and I’ve finally found the girl I’ve been looking for all of these years. … It took us a long time to find each other.”
As much as love is part of the human condition, Brody is well aware of its nemesis –– heartbreak.
“I’ve had heartbreak in my life and it just, it defines who we are,” he says. “But in order to have heartbreak, first you have to have your heart filled. You’ve had to have a lot of experience with someone for someone to be able to break you.”
One of his works that read, “I would do anything for you. And that includes letting go if that’s what you need,” encapsulated a love lost midway into his WRDSMTH project. The piece, which he posted in Runyon Canyon, has since been painted over.
“When I look back at this heartbreak, it’s like we were just on the cusp of something great and she pulled away. It was very hard. It hurt, and it always does hurt,” Brody says. “But you can’t convince anyone of anything.”
For every WRD that served a cathartic purpose for Brody, there’s a comment from a passerby that provides an impromptu moment of validation.
“There were a lot of times I was putting out pieces not knowing if people were going to get it, not knowing if it was going to speak to them,” he says, referencing the one that originally caught Webster’s eye. “It’s like a hit song.”
In perhaps his most intimate gesture to date, Brody lifted his anonymity as WRDSMTH for his first solo show, “I’d Like to Have a Word With You,” hosted at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do in L.A. last November. The show’s date came close to the four-year mark for his work as WRDSMTH, and he wanted to come face-to-face with those who had received his messages.
“I understand I’m dancing the line of legality. However, I believe in this far too much and people embrace it far too much for me to not do it,” he recalls. “I was there every moment that the doors were open because I wanted to talk to people. I wanted to meet them. I wanted to hug them. It was exhausting and energizing — a complete outpouring of emotion. I know I’ll do it again.”
His most recent piece stands 18 feet tall at the Andaz West Hollywood hotel on its north-facing wall near the parking lot. The commissioned work is a blacked-out mural of “lv lttrs,” an image that features a 1950s-fashioned couple midstep, her head tilted back while he holds her with one arm to share a kiss among the scattered characters of the word “loveletters.”
Brody drew inspiration for this image from a famous 1950s photograph by Robert Doisneau that captured Parisian couples for Life magazine. The piece hearkens back through nuance: The French photographer’s magnum opus is titled “Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).”
The terse short-form of the Smartphone age, where people communicate via memes, images and emojis, has worked in Brody’s favor. Users repost his images or tag one another in his comments section, which is frequently followed by affectionate responses and budding romances.
His WRDS have become virtual Hallmark cards.
“I’ve heard from so many people that I’m part of their courtships and relationships from the get-go,” Brody says with a laugh. “The beautiful thing is that I’m getting people laid.”
Not to mention engaged –– like Andrew Moskowitz, 30, and Becca Springer, 28, a love that started with Moskowitz’s repost of a WRD reading, “The fear of taking a chance is trumped by the hope it's the last chance we'll have to take.”
In an endearing email he sent to Brody requesting help for his December proposal, Moskowitz credits those words for his breakthrough moment. “Without your work, I may have not had the courage to meet the love of my life.”
Just one block down from the Broad, after almost every item on Moskowitz’s proposal agenda failed — from his parents’ late arrival to ring boxes stuck in jacket pockets and even unforeseen rain threatening to prevent the WRD from fully adhering — he bent the knee in front of a utility box on Third Street that read, “The way you look at me makes me see our future.”
As for Brody’s own slice of happily-ever-after, he remains a hope-filled romantic with two weddings to attend: In June, both Moskowitz and Springer and Webster and Liknaitzky are set to tie the knot.
“The world does suck –– especially recently. But every now and then you stumble across someone magical that makes everything all right,” Brody says, referring to a recent “cozy and delicious,” Champagne brunch at the Little Door with the new woman in his life. “And you can expand on that: It could be a cookie or a song or a piece of artwork. But [for me] it’s usually moments with someone that I think kind of fill that.”
He prefers getting to know a new someone on a neighborhood stroll or under string lights at the Eveleigh. Joyrides or nights in he finds are best soundtracked to Scottish synth-pop trio The Blue Nile or the ’63 self-titled album by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
The only love advice from L.A.’s most devoted pen pal: “This time that we have is so short. You have to fill it with people you like being around. Find those people. Let those people find you.”