A Signmaker Is Fighting American Foreign Policy with Guerrilla Art

LA Guerrilla artist Richard Ankrom's most interesting pieces involve hanging an exact replica of a highway sign—and, for eight years, no one noticed the difference. His work, largely commenting on American foreign and domestic policy, has \ expanded to...

Oct 14 2013, 11:00am

Richard Ankrom's piece, Guerrilla Public Service.

A raw departure from commerce-based gallery schlock, guerrilla art reimagines social and political problems in a way that is active and engaging. Be it graffiti, street art, or impermanent installations, guerrilla art has a long-standing commitment to challenging public perceptions of space, property, and politics. Guerrilla art is an act in both altruism and anarchy, involving hours of effort, little potential for money or recognition, and an untiring hand in exchanging ideas. One artist—and well-paid sign-writer by day—Richard Ankrom, a Seattle transplant to LA, has spent the past ten years using installation, videos, and anonymous art pieces in public spaces as a creative and political outlet.

His position as both artist and artisan has lent Richard a unique opportunity to take his inspirations literally to the streets, commenting on American politics while working as a part of civic infrastructure. Guerrilla Public Service was comprised of a replica roadside sign installed above LA’s 110 Freeway. While on route to his home at the Brewery Arts Colony, Richard spotted a distinct lack of signage for the route to the northbound I-5 freeway. On August 5, 2001, and using his ability to write regulation Caltrans signs, Richard created a detailed red-white-and-blue "5 shield" and green "North" sign out of 0.080 mm of 5053 aluminum, resplendent with special-ordered button reflectors. To covertly install it, he transformed himself into a Caltrans worker, decked out in orange safety vest and hardhat, and filmed himself scaling a ladder to the new sign in a video later displayed at several galleries. The sign was so authentic, Caltrans officials let it remain in place for eight years, four months and fifteen days, poised above the chaos of the Los Angeles traffic.

“The signs were exact reproduction of guide signs and placed on existing structure to aid motorists to their destination and ease traffic congestion for the hundreds of millions of motorists in their commute,” he said.

An ongoing installation, Manifest Destiny, includes replicas of US flags baring 59 stars installed on flagpoles outside various Federal-and state-owned monuments and buildings, replete with explanatory plaques. “These nine additional stars represent America's destiny as a world leader in unification and assimilation of all people and cultures,” Richard said. “American wealth, technology, military, and culture has already circled the globe.” Manifest Destiny also involved applying parody decals to missiles at California military bases, and in response to criticism of Obama’s failure to wear a flag lapel pin during his run for election, a flag pin with 198 stars (the extras are inspired by the bombast and overkill associated with the overt nationalism of “flag-sucking cocksuckers,” he explains.)

The Iraq War initially inspired the evolving project in 2003. “When Bush started invading Iraq, Homeland Security started… I just couldn’t believe it. [The Patriot Act] sounded so much like Hitler’s Fatherland. If that’s not Orwellian doubletalk, I don’t know what is.“ Richard plans to continue with the project in the coming year, only this time, his inspiration is the government shutdown.

Not quite satire, but more embellished public service, Richard created a Federal Minimum Wage Poster in 2007 outlining minimum wage and workers’ rights upon learning that an existing sign, funded by the federal Government, was being axed due to cuts. The “improved” sign is an overhaul of the minimalist list of government issues, outlining pay rates, overtime rules, and child labor laws. He also recruited a cheerleader model and added some fancy flag graphics. “I heard it was no longer being issued and decided to create one. It’s an issue I feel strongly about.”

In addition to embodying obvious humor and a hefty polemic in his work, Richard is also affected and influenced by situationalism, the process of recontextualizing the mundane in order to value the real, in turn redefining the object in question. His 2012 series Figurines is a set of transformed porcelain figurines. These seemingly innocent decorations are subverted, transformed, and redefined. Familiar suburban artifacts like Dopey, Winnie the Pooh, and assorted anonymous cuddly creatures are fitted with S&M-style masks and paraphernalia. 

Although being both a sign-writer and a subversive artist makes him a bit of a paradox, Richard embraces his position. His commitment to artistic expression has led him to create and alter objects in a very specific way, and he has been able to do this partially because of his other life as an artisan. He has conveyed his criticism of American policy through his interest in transforming public spaces in a way only someone with his career's visibility can.

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