Guerrilla Public Service Redux

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
At some point in your life you’ve probably encountered a problem in the built world. Something that was poorly designed and the fix was obvious to you. Maybe a door that opened the wrong way, or a poorly painted marker on the road. I notice this kind of stuff all the time, even more so now, after creating this show.

Roman Mars:
I’m sorry if you do, too, because you listen to this show. And mostly, when we see these things, we grumble on the inside, and then do nothing.

David Weinberg:
There are all sorts of reasons for our inertia. We don’t know how to fix it. It’s not ours to fix. We could get in trouble.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, David Weinberg.

David Weinberg:
You might notice these little design flaws for years, silently fuming, until one day.

Amy Inoyou:
He called me and said, “Okay, we’re doing it.”

David Weinberg:
It was early Sunday morning, August 5, 2001, in Los Angeles, California. Richard Ankrom and a group of friends were on the 4th Street Bridge over the 110 freeway. They were about to commit a crime.

Richard Ankrom:
It’s going to be a high profile, dangerous situation. Not only could I get arrested, I could kill somebody. Really, I was terrified of that.

David Weinberg:
But, let’s back up. About 20 years prior, Richard Ankrom, an artist living in Orange County, was driving North on the 110 freeway. As he passed through downtown Los Angeles, he was going to merge onto another freeway, the I-5 North. But he missed the exit and got lost. And for some reason, it just stuck with him.

Roman Mars:
Years later, when Richard moved to downtown Los Angeles, he was driving on the same stretch of freeway where he’d gotten lost a decade before. When he looked up at the big green rectangular sign, suspended above.

Richard Ankrom:
I realized why I missed the exit. It’s because it wasn’t adequately signed.

Roman Mars:
Bad way-finding.

David Weinberg:
The exit for the I-5 wasn’t indicated on the green overhead sign. There was even a big open space where there should have been a blue and red interstate shield. And above that, it should’ve said “North”. It was clear to Richard that Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, had made a mistake.

Roman Mars:
So Richard, an artist and sign painter, decided to make the Interstate 5 North shield himself, and install it in the place he thought it should have been all along – high above the 110 freeway. He would call it an act of “guerrilla public service.”

Richard Ankrom:
The whole idea was to be sort of a public servant or, actually to show what you can do with artwork. You can put it in plain sight and have a functioning, working thing for everyone to use.

David Weinberg:
Richard started by studying L.A. freeway signs, holding up hand-toned swatches to perfectly match the paint color. He dangled over bridges to measure the exact dimensions of other signs, and most importantly, he downloaded the necronimicon of California road signage, the MUTCD.

Roman Mars:
The M-U-T-C-D, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, “to provide for uniform standards and specifications for all official traffic control devices in California.” It’s not a beach read. I have it as more of a lazy, Sunday afternoon read.

Richard Ankrom:
All the specs are online, so people can bid on projects.

David Weinberg:
Richard wanted his sign to be built to the exact specifications of Caltrans, which were designed to be read by motorists traveling at high speeds.

Richard Ankrom:
The shield, with the “5” on it is three feet, roughly, high and wide. It’s less than an eighth of an inch, barely an eighth of an inch thick aluminum. It’s still pretty strong. And above that I put the word “North”, and that was about 14 inches by 5 feet. And, again, I used the same typeface that was there and the same signs. I tried to match everything as close as I could so it wouldn’t be obvious Caltrans didn’t do it.

David Weinberg:
Richard’s brand new editions had to blend in perfectly with the existing signage, which had been collecting dirt and smog for decades.

Richard Ankrom:
I sprayed the whole thing with a really thin glaze of gray and knocked down the shine.

David Weinberg:
After he finished it, Richard signed his name on the back of it with a black marker, like a painter signing a canvas. Then came the next phase of the project, the installation, which he planned with the precision of a bank heist.

Roman Mars:
He bought a disguise. A white hard hat and an orange vest, so he’d look like a Caltrans worker.

Richard Ankrom:
Basically looked the part as best I could.

Roman Mars:
And he made a decal for his pickup truck, meant to look vaguely official that said “Aesthetic Deconstruction”.

David Weinberg:
The night before the installation, Richard drove out to the site and hid some of his supplies, so they’d be easy to get to the next morning. When I interviewed him, he took me to the spot, and showed me where he stashed his stuff.

Richard Ankrom:
Okay. We’re basically here. Right now, the ivy isn’t that thick, but it was a lot thicker, and I had… basically, behind that tree, had stashed the ladder and the sign, and stuff.

David Weinberg:
After he hid his things, he climbed a tree and just sat there, going through everything in his head.

Richard Ankrom:
I just sort of calmed myself down by being there and hanging around with it the night before.

David Weinberg:
Richard was worried that he might drop the sign, or one of his tools, onto the road below. Drivers going 60 plus miles an hour would have no time to react if something landed on the road in front of them or, worse, onto their car.

Richard Ankrom:
That was the scariest thing of the whole project, is if somebody hurt, and, you know, I’d have to live with that. And then the project, I’d have to can it, because it would have defeated the whole idea of it.

David Weinberg:
But despite some reservations, Richard was pretty confident he could pull the whole thing off. And he’d gone too far to turn back.

Roman Mars:
And that brings us back to the morning of August 5, 2001. Richard did not act alone. He asked several friends to film the installation from different vantage points. Amy Inoyou was one of the friends he enlisted to film.

Amy Inoyou:
We did it at 6:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. It was tense, because we all thought we were going to get into trouble.

Roman Mars:
Richard had chosen a Sunday morning to put up the sign, knowing that there would be little traffic, and the morning light rising above the skyscrapers would be just right for filming. What he hadn’t anticipated was that Caltrans had also picked that morning to do work on the same stretch of highway.

Amy Inoyou:
Yes, they happened to be doing some other work on the freeway just south of that sign.

David Weinberg:
When they saw the Caltrans workers, they thought about turning back.

Richard Ankrom:
But I had surmised, after all this is a pretty large city, there’d be more than one sign crew. My assumption was they’d think the other guy was doing it.

David Weinberg:
Richard parked his truck. And when everyone was in position with their cameras, he went to work.

Richard Ankrom:
The hardest part, really, was getting over the razor wire with the ladder.

David Weinberg:
Once he was up on the catwalk, nearly 30 feet above the highway, he started screwing in the new sign, careful not to drop any screws on the cars below.

Amy Inoyou:
Halfway into it, we just felt like, okay, he’s going to get away with it.

Friend:
Look at that. Is that amazing or what? Oh look, he’s folding up the stuff, he’s got it up.

David Weinberg:
The whole thing took less than 30 minutes. As soon as it was up, Richard packed up his ladder, rushed back to his truck, and blended back into the city.

Friend:
Wow.

Amy Inoyou:
Oh my God.

Friend:
Awesome.

Amy Inoyou:
I think we all went out to breakfast together afterwards, and we were super relieved and really happy.

Roman Mars:
Only a small group of people knew that the Interstate 5 shield, with the word “North” hanging above the 110 freeway was a forgery.

Amy Inoyou:
He didn’t say to us “Don’t tell anyone.” So our friends all new about it, and we would drive by it and we would just all feel really happy about it. But it never sort of managed to leak out past that small group.

David Weinberg:
For a while.

Amy Inoyou:
For a while.

David Weinberg:
For nine months, the secret stayed within a small community. And then Richard’s friend, Gary, leaked the story.

Friend:
Oh, what the hell, Gary! Why can’t you be cool? Just be cool, Gary!

David Weinberg:
Richard’s secret was out to Caltrans and to the press.

Press:
From the fake magnetic sign on his beat up blue truck, to a work order proclaiming “Rush”.

Press:
What he did is against the law, but Caltrans says it has no plans at all to file charges against him.

Richard Ankrom:
After they found out what had happened, apparently they sent a crew out there to inspect it.

Roman Mars:
Richard was hoping to get his sign back from Caltrans after they took it down. He was thinking he would hang it in an art gallery, but Caltrans didn’t take the sign down.

Richard Ankrom:
It passed the Caltrans inspection, because that’s really the final test of how good the artwork is. It stayed up for eight years, nine months and fourteen days, I believe. It’s not exactly accurate, but it’s pretty close to that.

David Weinberg:
In interviews about the incident with other news organizations, Caltrans didn’t exactly condone Richard’s handiwork, but they were pretty kind about it.

Roman Mars:
Here’s the Caltrans’ spokesperson, at the time.

Spokesperson:
He did a good job. But we don’t want him to do it again. And, in fact, he did such a good job that I’d like to offer him a job application.

Roman Mars:
More than eight years after Richard’s sign went up, he got a call from a friend who noticed some workers taking it down. Richard contacted Caltrans to ask if he could have his sign back.

Richard Ankrom:
By the time I tracked them down, it had already been crushed into a bale going for China. And who knows what it turned into. Could be a waffle iron by now.

David Weinberg:
After Caltrans took down Richard’s sign, they replaced it with a brand new one. But this time, they incorporated his ideas into the new design. They added the 5 North and the shield, not only to that sign, but to two additional ones up the road.

Roman Mars:
A little epilogue. Richard’s highway sign is a happily ever after story. The sign worked. People appreciated it. No one got hurt, thankfully. Even Caltrans was really pretty nice about the whole thing.

Roman Mars:
There’s another guerrilla sign story, out of New York City. A group that calls itself the “Efficient Passenger Project” has been hanging signs in New York subway stations to tell people where they can board the train to make the most efficient transfers.

David Weinberg:
The project is not at all affiliated with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, but the signs look just like MTA signs, black with white Helvetica lettering. They say things like “Board here for best transfer to the 4, 5, and 6 trains.” Or “Board here for best transfer to F and M trains.”

Roman Mars:
It’s the kind of knowledge that you build up over time, as a regular subway rider. And this guerrilla sign maker is offering it to everyone.

David Weinberg:
And though some have applauded the signs, not all New Yorkers are pleased.

Roman Mars:
“These are secrets,” some say, “that people should have to earn. They will unbalance the cars,” they say. “Leave signage to the experts.”

David Weinberg:
The MTA, for their part, is taking down the signs as fast as they go up. MTA spokesman, Kevin Ortiz, told us in an email that “Posting of the signs is considered an act of vandalism.”

Roman Mars:
Point being, if you decide to undertake an act of “guerrilla public service,” just know it may not be received as such.

Credits

Production

Reporter David Weinberg spoke with artist and guerilla public servant Richard Ankrom, and Ankrom’s friend and co-conspirator Amy Inoyou. David is the producer of Below the Ten and host of the podcast Random Tape. Coda on guerrilla urban interventions with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Music

Score for the original episode 152:
“Fumes” — Aesop Rock
“Slowly” — Amon Tobin
“Keepin it Steel” — Amon Tobin
“Yasawas” — Amon Tobin
“Saboteur” — Amon Tobin
“Stoney Street” — Amon Tobin
“Chocolate Lovely” — Amon Tobin
“My Metro Card” — LeTigre
“Sifting in Sans” — Set in Sand

All music in the Redux episode 288 was composed by Sean Real.

Comments (42)

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  1. In Seoul, the subways lines almost all have transfer guides, and many subway apps also tell you the transfer doors. It’s planned as part of the system. It’s funny that in New York they refuse it.

  2. TJ

    What’s the song played in the background when Roman is describing the installation of the sign? Sounds like such a classic heist movie song that I should totally know.

    1. Scott

      They’re songs from Amon Tobin’s Supermodified album. It’s a really really great album.

  3. roman

    Hi all – I’ve listed the music we used at the end of the post. Most of it was Amon Tobin.

  4. Rich-the-reader

    The story never mentions whether Richard ever tried informing CALTRANS of the need for the extra signage (wayfinding). Seems like a logical first step to call, write or email them. If they never respond or act, consider the next step. Perhaps the transportation section of the local newspaper. If all else fails, then maybe it’s time to take matters into one’s own hands for the benefit of the public good.

  5. BKPlanner

    The reason the MTA doesn’t like the “Efficient Passenger Project” signs is because of load balance. You can dismiss it all you want, Roman, but if everyone wants to get into the same car to make a popular transfer (say the 4/5/6), then it’ll take longer than it already does to get out of the station. This will delay the whole system, all because some yahoos feel the need to get into ONE car. It’s a fantastic idea, but simply falls apart in the face of the everyday realities of the NYC subway system.

  6. Ken

    It’s also worth mentioning another approach to gorilla sign management, which as a Bay Area resident, I assume Roman knows about: the sign that indicates the turnoff from Route 1 to Bolinas, CA. Or really, the lack thereof: residents of the town have been taking it down for decades to dissuade people from discovering their little hippy village, to the point where many of them have one of the signs on display at their homes. Eventually, CalTrans stopped replacing it.

  7. There’s a group called Walk Your City that’s been hanging up signs with walking directions, and providing a tool for others to do the same. I’ve come across their signs in San Francisco a couple times recently.

    Here’s their website: https://walkyourcity.org/

  8. I read somewhere that Caltrans doesn’t follow the MUTCD but merely uses it as a guideline for their own standards. Is this true? Of course, there was a time when the state had nothing to do with signage. It was the Auto Club that started erecting signs for the benefit of motorists.

    1. Steppy

      Some states have their own version of the MUTCD, CA is one of them . It follows the same basic rules but tailors them to CA needs.

  9. Di

    Been working on a similar issue, painting curbs red in front of fire hydrants that weren’t red before. Prevents a lot of people from parking there and getting towed/ticketed.

  10. LRJP!

    It’s a more delicate intervention and even more self-consciously an *art* project, but this story reminded me a little of Milena Bonilla’s rather lovely Transitory Map: “I randomly took several bus rides in Bogotá and sew the torn fabric of some of the buses seats. The size of the holes defined the time invested in repairing them while traveling along the city. After each journey, I highlighted the bus’s itinerary by sewing it on a map of the city, using the same thread color as the one used to sew the seat. Twenty-five tours were completed in the project and sixteen are documented.” http://milenabonilla.info/project-128-Transitory_Map.html

  11. Love 99% Invisible.
    This was a great show. Thanks for your efforts.
    Give the boys a hug and let them know every day you love them. And always back up mom, in front of the kids, even when she’s wrong. United, parents stand, divided, children fall.
    My only advice to parents.

  12. Paul

    The Seoul example of the Fast Transfers however is flawed because it revolves around knowing the carriage numbers, and the carriage numbers aren’t marked within the actual carriages. Plus, some of the listed transfers are physically impossible.

    1. Mike

      Living in Seoul for the last 5 years, fast transfers work because the carriage numbers (more specifically door numbers) are marked in front of every door. Need to transfer at Sadang from line 2 to go downtown? Just enter the train at car 5 door 2 and you’ll be right at the staircase to transfer to the light blue.

  13. Sergio de Regules

    I’ve noticed a different example of bad design, but I don’t know what can be done about it. It’s digital buttons on car stereos. With old-time analog buttons, there was one button per function (volume, bass, treble, balance) and each button could go only so far to the left or to the right. The advantage was that you could adjust the sound by touch while you kept your eyes on the road. With those stupid digital buttons, there is one single button for everything, and it goes all the way around. That makes it necessary for you to divert your eyes from the road and look at the stereo screen to check what function you are adjusting and what value it’s at at the moment. This is annoying and dangerous. Somebody please tell car stereo makers to bring back the one button-one function stereo.

    1. Judith Berkowitz

      Hi Sergio,
      The design flaw you describe will probably be short-lived: it’s just a matter of time before all car sound systems will be voice-activated.

  14. Anna

    I first read about the LA guerrilla sign change in Ken Jennings’ book Maphead. I was delighted to get a more thorough retelling of the story on 99PI! Reminds me of a sign giving directions to the interstate as you are leaving the St. Louis airport. (you can see it here https://www.google.com/maps/@38.741553,-90.368152,3a,75y,122.36h,85.6t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s05W_rkqAbhYiejnB3BYlpw!2e0 )
    The area of the sign that says “To East 70/170” hangs over the right-hand side of the fork in the road, but you actually take the left fork to get to 70/170E. I suppose MODOT thinks that since most of the sign hangs over the left fork, motorists should deduce that everything on the sign applies to the left fork, but I and others have gotten turned around a bunch of times before learning.

  15. Owen

    Everyone talks a lot about “load balance” when talking about the guerilla NYC board here transfer signs, but I think a bigger issue is information overload. Vignelli’s original designs for the subway system are masterfully simple. It only takes living in the city a little while to really understand how to traverse the subway, which is a major feat. One of the key to this is presentation of information, and I think efficient transfer signs are just overwhelming to people who don’t know how to use the subway and may already be confused. The beauty of the system in place is that presents just enough information to be understood with being utterly confusing.

    1. Ryan

      In the case of the Toronto park stairs, they were poorly built, and of questionable necessity (imagine Ankrom scrawled “I5” on a piece of Bristol board and duct taped it to the overpass sign). I live about a km from the park – virtually no article on the story mentioned how there was a paved path into the park less than 50m away.

      But, it shamed the city into building real stairs quickly, so that’s something?

  16. Heidi Freeman

    Hi, thought I’d pass on info about something similar in inner city Sydney Australia. There is a small train station called Macdonaldtown. It was very run down and in need of a paint job. The State Rail Authority said it would be very expensive to upgrade the station and would take a long time to do, and questioned whether such a small station was worth the expense. It said that it may be some time before anything could happen. Lots of requests from the local community only resulted in the message that an upgrade would eventually occur.

    Then one day commuters woke up to the entire station having been painted bright pink. The guérilla artists then wrote in to Column 9 of the Sydney Morning Herald, the city’s main newspaper – a place where people report funny and whimsical occurrences, and told how a small group completed the project in a few hours having spent less than $50 on paint. It didn’t take long for State rail to jump into action and repaint the station, although most commuters preferred the bright pink!

  17. Nick

    A good example of where community endeavours haven’t fared so well with local fruit trees: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-02/d-day-arrives-for-more-urban-food-street-grower-residents/8583598?pfmredir=sm

    In Australia gardening on public land between the property and street is common practice – but it’s still local council land, and different councils have different regulations. A common requirement is public liability insurance or licences to reduce the council’s liability in case of mishaps, but local councils aren’t always the most transparent or convenient organisations to interact with. This neighbourhood in Buderim, Queensland got in the news recently as the council removed their community nature strip orchards due to the lack of said permits, despite the orchards being there for many years.

  18. Sabrina

    It’s not just liberal cities that do this! I was involved in this tactical urbanism project in Provo Utah, where we revamped an entire city block overnight. We created bulbouts, a protected bike lane and provided wayfinding signs. It was awesome! http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/central/provo/volunteers-work-under-cover-of-darkness-to-reimagine-provo-street/article_41c48c10-f93f-5761-86af-88de2c988c9a.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=user-share

  19. Paul

    There’s a great app (and site) called SeeClickFix.com that is an increasingly popular way to report everything from design improvement opportunities to missed trash pickups and — my favorite — streetlights that either are on 24/7, or not on at all.

    It has been used here in Princeton, NJ, successfully for a number of years.

  20. Andy

    This is a great thing to see someone taking action like this, but he could’ve killed someone if he dropped that sign on an active freeway. Not sure why he didn’t think of applying vinyl graphics instead of carrying a heavy-ass metal sign onto a freeway overpass. Even traffic on a Sunday morning means there will be some people moving through the freeway. Think before you act people! Stencils or vinyl would’ve looked just as good if you do it well and shouldn’t take any longer to install.

  21. MuTru

    Kudos, kinda, but two questions:

    1) Why on Earth would he do any field work when everything — colors and dimensions — are detailed exactly in the MUTCD?

    2) And why didn’t he /start/ by contacting highway officials to see if they would just fix the sign properly, rather than risk his own safety and that of motorists by doing it himself?

    Admirable goals, moronic execution.

  22. Guru

    This artistic endeavor is legendary was done with expect execution that is indicative of a meticulous creative mind. It is a heart warming reminder of why I have always loved public art in its seemingly infinite forms.

  23. Trevor M

    A sane person would contact the relevant authorities about the problem, instead of spending a ridiculous amount of time planning a DIY job (to the point of DELIBERATELY IMPERSONATING AN EMPLOYEE??).

    This isn’t inspiring or something worth celebrating, it’s a story of a vain idiot.

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