The unveiling of a new billboard in West Hollywood. Photo by the author
Bleach-blond women on stilts waving oversized fans motioned me up the stairs to the second-floor balcony above the burger joint so I could get a better view of the upcoming unveiling. I was at a nondescript West Hollywood strip mall where smartly dressed young people who resembled Aaron Sorkin's idea of political staffers milled about with local business types, eating hors d'oeuvres served on platters by young women in white T-shirts that said “ACE.”
“This is wonderful,” said Genevieve Morrill, president and CEO of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “This is a great example of what we can do.”
A young man walked over with a pair of giant scissors. Words were spoken, and a ribbon was cut, while across the parking lot three men in hard hats dropped a tarp, revealing the reason we were all there: a billboard with an ad for a high-tech thermostat—or rather, the pole holding it up. In fact, nobody mentioned the ad at all.
“When you think of a magnificent outdoor advertising space—it really begins with the pole,” explained Brad Yacullo, managing partner of ACE Outdoor Advertising, in a press release handed out at the April 16 event.
More than just a pole, its design provided “an opportunity to rethink conventional urban infrastructure,” according to architect Lorcan O'Herlihy. “The structure is a fluid gesture inspired by the stream of traffic coursing below,” he said in a statement, sounding like someone’s idea of a museum curator. “The billboard enacts an abstraction of movement and motion captured in space,” its color—“cobalt blue”—a “link to the ever-present surrounding blue sky.”
“It's really beautiful,” said West Hollywood Mayor John D'Amico in an interview with public radio station KPCC. “It's exceptional, and I think it will reset the standard for new billboards and revised billboards on the Sunset Strip.” This is just the beginning, for the mayor believes “billboards are part of the Sunset Strip's cultural identity,” according to KPCC, and “he's ready to see more innovative billboards there: projected billboards, lit-up billboards, three-dimensional billboards.”
The dream of ACE and its ilk is to put billboards everywhere you rest your eyes—a full-on revival of what the mayor calls “billboard culture,” which once made the Sunset Strip “something that people would drive miles and miles to come and see.”
Perhaps some people will drive through Hollywood traffic to see a few ads, but the mayor himself was “running late,” according to an aide, and didn't get make it in time to see the dramatic unveiling. And why would he? It's just a pole that holds an ad. Those who did make it to the party acted as if they were all in on a joke, that perhaps with the push of a strong cocktail the flowery language about that wonderful pole would give way to a smirk and a confession: “Wasn't that some bullshit?”
As they likely knew, those assembled there weren't contributing to any real cultural achievement but erecting a cobalt blue gravestone to mark where one used to be. And that bugs that hell out of some of the people who used to practically live on the Strip.
Billboards on the Sunset Strip. Photo via Flickr user Michael Dorausch
“I detest nostalgia on principle—it always includes historical amnesia,” said Carol Wells, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, a nonprofit that collects, analyzes, and exhibits politically charged art. In the 60s, Wells and her husband would go to the Sunset Strip to hang out and be part of what was then a “burgeoning youth and countercultural scene.” Even in those days, the most iconic monument on the Strip was an advertisement, a 70-foot cowboy who used rugged masculinity to sell cancer. Still, Wells told me, back then Sunset Boulevard had a culture that wasn’t a result of crass advertising campaigns.
“I would walk along the Sunset Strip on a date,” she said, “people-watching, visiting a bookstore, occasionally being accosted by someone proselytizing for Scientology.” Young people flocked to a club called Pandora's Box to hear jazz and see the hottest rock bands. It wasn't a paradise, but it was nowhere near as obnoxious as it is today. Some billboards even stood for something back then.
In January 1966, for example, a “billboard-sized sign” was put up at a major intersection on Sunset Boulevard, as historian Jon Wiener recently recounted in the Los Angeles Times, announcing in three-foot tall letters: “Stop the War in Vietnam.” Vandals destroyed it, but the artists rebuilt, and a few weeks later they used that space to put up a “Peace Tower,” which featured 418 separate two-by-two-foot works of antiwar art. It didn't last for long.
“Night after night,” wrote Wiener, “would-be saboteurs came hoping to destroy the Tower of Protest, some of them active-duty soldiers and Marines from nearby military bases.” One evening, 300 “pro-war men” arrived at the structure and assaulted the 15 to 20 volunteers who stayed up all night defending it. When sheriff's deputies arrived, they sided with the saboteurs and got to beating some hippies. The owner of the lot where the tower was built had had enough and, just three months after it went up, the tower was gone. Today, next to where the tower once stood there is a tanning salon, a store selling hand-crafted cowboy boots, and a place to buy organic dog food. (In 2012, the tower itself was briefly commemorated with a similar structure on an empty lot down the street and off the Strip.)
What happened to the Sunset Strip is not that the kids just got old and sold out—the scene was intentionally destroyed by business leaders and city authorities, who in 1966 imposed a 10 PM curfew and forced the closure of several nightclubs. After a rally at Pandora's Box, one of the doomed clubs, LA County Supervisor Ernest Debs labeled the the young protesters “misguided hoodlums.” In the end, skulls were cracked, clubs associated with the counterculture were closed and torn down, the earth salted. The Strip was taken away from the rowdy kids, their culture stamped out and replaced with a lack thereof. Where once there was a lively spirit of rebellion, today there is a geriatric rock band on a reunion tour, a Hustler shop, and Dane Cook performing standup.
The average resident of LA might now go to the Strip for a concert once every other year, as a decent venue or two managed to escape the city's bulldozers, but unless soullessness is your scene, you’ll leave right after your show ends. These days, the only people really in their element on the Strip have black BMWs and an unjustified sense of entitlement. They wear the most expensive products advertised all around them—Diesel jeans, Prada glasses, bodily odors by Calvin Klein—and have a tab at the Standard, a luxury hotel so mindlessly hip it spells its name upside down and keeps a conventionally attractive young woman locked in a glass cube behind the check-in desk.
The modern Strip is also home to a den of pretentious insufferability called the Soho House, “a private members' club for those in film, media, and creative industries.” For $2,000 a year (or half that if the person is under 27), members are afforded the opportunity to avoid the riffraff by hanging out in a garden lined with olive trees on the top of a high-rise overlooking Sunset Boulevard. It's where Hollywood goes to network and the sort of place where you might see the back of P. Diddy's head as he chows down on some $18 quinoa or bump into that woman who used to be on the Daily Show but isn't anymore because she wasn't any good.
This is what the Sunset Strip is today: a quick stop for tourists looking to gawk at an eight-story ad for Game of Thrones and a hangout for the over-privileged refuse that falls from the Hollywood Hills. It's a juice bar next to a juice bar next to a boutique lingerie store, with Photoshopped bodies scantily clad in expensive clothes everywhere the eye can see. It's just fucking awful.
A billboard installation by the Guerrilla Girls art collective. Photo courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls
“John D’Amico’s justification for the proliferation of billboards on Sunset Strip because it is 'known' for its corporate culture is very cynical and self-serving,” Wells told me. He's doing it for the money—the city gets $10,000 a month from that cobalt-blue pole alone—which could be justified if it went to a good cause, but claiming that billboards somehow enrich neighborhoods is a slap in the face to those old enough to remember a time when the culture wasn't so obviously soulless. Even the mayor recognizes this idea as politically toxic: D'Amico took time out of an interview promoting the Strip's “billboard culture” to stress that he wouldn't allow it to spread any further than it has. “None of us want more billboards along Melrose or Fairfax or Santa Monica Boulevard,” he said. Only advertisers do.
Of course, it's not billboards themselves that are loathed, but the purposes for which they are used and the messages they carry—all those reminders that we are ugly and inadequate and in need of some new and improved idea of perfection. A billboard is but a canvas; that the canvas is so often used to create a roadside blemish is a commentary on those who can afford to use them.
“Capitalism has always attempted to define our cultural values,” Wells said. But while “the system is able to co-opt most forms of dissent”—Forever 21 selling shirts adorned with the logo of the Black Panthers—“fortunately, new forms keep developing.” Some artists adopt the corporate aesthetic to make an anti-capitalist point, like designing a police riot shield using the colors and logo of an oil company.
There’s even a history of socially conscious billboard installations. The Guerrilla Girls, the famous anonymous art collective, has purchased space on a number of billboards in West Hollywood protesting the film industry's treatment of women. In 2002, they put up one that featured a flabby, middle-aged white man with the words, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar.” A similar 2003 installation observed that “Even the US Senate is More Progressive Than Hollywood,” a claim based on the number of women each institution employs.
But few artists can afford to outbid a corporation for space on a billboard; even ones as popular as the Guerrilla Girls can only do it occasionally, and then only for a short time. And even when they do manage to put something up in a place where people will actually see it, their work can be taken down if a corporation doesn't like it. In 1990, Los Angeles artist Robbie Conal put up a piece on a West Hollywood billboard critical of far-right senator Jesse Helms, who at the time was trying to slash federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. The work, Artificial Art Official, featured the senator's face on an artist's palette covered in paint—with the thumb hole in the middle of his head—and though he had paid good money to put it up, it “was soon ordered removed by skittish billboard company executives,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Though it was put back up a day later after a public outcry, “The experience with that billboard taught me never to do anything legal ever again,” Conal was quoted as saying in sociologist Steven Dublin's book Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. The point was made: If you want to display art in an American city through legitimate methods, that means opening yourself up to censorship from corporations and politicians, particularly if your work isn’t pretty and pleasantly apolitical.
By their nature, billboards exploit public space for private gain, something we take for granted in this age of austere capitalism; despite the democratic platitudes mouthed by politicians, few even think to apply democratic values to the commons. But billboards need not be platforms for brands alone. If anyone wants to build a true “billboard culture,” the community, not just corporations, should be offered a chance to contribute.
Joe Smoke, the director of grants administration for LA's Department of Cultural Affairs, pointed me to several organizations that have helped put art on billboards. And the Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a non-profit devoted to public art, is in the process of buying space on 100 billboards alongside Interstate 10, from California to Florida, and giving ten artists the opportunity to comment on the “extraordinarily influential (and often times destructive)” idea of “manifest destiny” and the brutal expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea.
Andrew Campbell, administrator of cultural affairs for West Hollywood, told me the city “actually has an agreement with two companies with billboards on the Sunset Strip.” On one, above the House of Blues, “we display the work of artists,” with the work rotating “every couple years or so.” On the other, an electronic billboard that displays video, the city requires there to be “nine minutes of art per hour,” with “no charge for artists to participate.”
While something is better than nothing, the fact is art is displayed on but two of the hundreds of billboards on Sunset Boulevard. And those with something to say that the powerful do not want to hear still have to turn to the street.
Indeed, street art, by virtue of the fact it is generally not commissioned by either corporations or politicians, may be the most authentic form of artistic dissent; anyone with a pile of posters or a can of paint to take back public space and offer a commentary on their city and society. But by their nature, these works are impermanent, always at risk of being covered up and their creators placed behind bars, not because they are obscene, but because capital views the free use of the commons by the commoners as an obscenity. You have to pay to express yourself, buddy.
A piece by Kira Lynn Harris that was part of the 2010 project How Many Billboards?, which put art on billboards around Los Angeles. Photo via Flickr user Alissa Walker
There is no going back to the 1960s, but the Sunset Strip could become a place known for more than just ads if the public demanded that the aesthetics of their neighborhoods be shaped by something other than advertising money. If companies like ACE are paying the city of West Hollywood $120,000 a year just to put up a single billboard, they are no doubt raking in plenty more. Why not ask them to give something back to the community in the form of a platform for art? Billboard companies could be required to hand over their canvases to local artists for one month out of every 12—you could stagger things so that there’s always art somewhere on the Strip, or turn all the billboards into installation pieces at once and call it a “festival” to bring in the tourists. Let the community vote on what goes up so as to avoid political interference. The only thing stopping us is the assumption that public space should go to the highest bidder.
Imagine instead of and ad on top of the cobalt-blue pole of tomorrow, a mural painted by a street artist or a political message from a local activist. The Sunset Strip could again enjoy the vibrancy of a culture formed from the bottom up, not placed there by an out-of-state executive. All we have to lose is an ad for the Gap.
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry, and Salon.