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This Fake Street Sign is a Public Art Masterpiece

Remembering the time Richard Ankrom installed his own street sign on the California freeway—and it lasted for eight years.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Feb 18 2015, 9:15pm

Richard Ankrom installs his own sign on the 5 North exit. Photo credit: Richard Ankrom, via

Once in awhile, a public artwork comes to the aid of public service. A building in Toronto, for instance, is currently a reactive surface visualizing the plight of the homeless. A galloping horse projected from a mobile movie theater is helping expose rural Thailand to cinema. In the case of artist Richard Ankrom, the civil contribution came in the form of Guerrilla Public Service, an art project that saw Ankrom installing fabricated markers onto existing freeway signs without permission. But this was neither a spiked critique á la Luzinterruptus' LED-infused syringes, nor a crowd crystal-type experiment like Sebastian Errazuriz's yawning billboards in Times Square. No, Ankrom's reasoning behind for Guerrilla Public Service is much simpler: "A North panel and 5 shield were fabricated and attached to the existing overhead sign because the information was missing."

"Essentially it's a conceptual piece," Ankrom told LA Weekly in 2002 after installing his work nine months before. "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." Without any official signage to demarcate the 5 North exit, Ankrom found himself constantly missing his juncture. In the new episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, hear Ankrom explain how, as a sign painter by trade, he simply took it upon himself to fix it. 

"I think the worst thing they could charge me with would be trespassing and defacing property, which I believe are still misdemeanors," Ankrom continued in 2002. "[...]  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." Eight years after the original installation of Guerrilla Public Service, Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, finally got the message: they installed a new sign in place of the old one, and simply recycled Ankrom's work. 

Video still: Catherine Cummings

So was it an intervention, an act of vandalism, or was Ankrom simply doing the work he was trained for? Tune in to Episode 152: Guerrilla Public Service from podcast 99% Invisible, and let us know what you think in the comments below. 

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