The Secret Public Servant Who Turned A Freeway Sign Into Art

By Nolan Moore on Wednesday, April 22, 2015
bc62629d80765f9e7880a71fff66733a
“It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.” —Truman Capote

In A Nutshell

Richard Ankrom is more than just an artist. He’s a guerrilla public servant. In 2001, he singlehandedly replaced a Los Angeles freeway sign with a near-exact replica that he’d made himself. Why? Because years before, the sign had made Richard miss his exit.

The Whole Bushel

In 1991, artist Richard Ankrom was driving down the 110 freeway in LA, looking to merge onto I-5 North, when he missed his exit. We’ve all been there, but for some reason, Ankrom never forgot that moment. It was always there, nagging at the back of his mind. How had he missed that exit?

A few years later, everything clicked.

He was driving down the 110 again when he noticed something odd about the freeway sign. Where there should’ve been a red and blue I-5 shield marking the exit, there was a big empty space. Somebody at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had screwed up. That’s why he’d missed his exit back in 1991.

Most people would just shake their head and move on. Not Richard. He decided he was the man to fix this problem. He’d make his own sign and swap it out with the old one, and that’s when he went into Danny Ocean mode. He studied freeway signs across the city, analyzing the colors, copying the typeface, and crawling onto bridges with a measuring tape. And to make sure his sign was perfect, he pored over the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the Bible on California sign design.

Soon, Richard’s sign was ready, complete with the I-5 shield. It was perfect, right down to its thickness. He even sprayed the sign with a little bit of gray paint to give it that old, worn look. Next, he cut his hair, bought a hard hat and safety vest, and made an official-looking decal for his truck to fool people into thinking he worked for the city.

It was showtime.

On August 5, 2001, Richard climbed over razor wire, made his way across a catwalk 9 meters (30 ft) above the ground, and removed and replaced the faulty sign in less than half an hour with cars whizzing below him the whole time. And there it stayed (complete with his signature on the back) for nine months, until a friend blabbed to the press. Only Caltrans wasn’t angry. In fact, they were impressed. The sign met all their criteria so they left it hanging there for nearly nine years.

Unfortunately, when they took it down years later, they crushed it up before Richard could rescue his prized piece of art. But when they replaced his forgery, they made sure the new sign had the I-5 North shield marking that pesky exit.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Google Street View
Ankrom: Freeway Signs
99% Invisible: Guerrilla Public Service

  • http://azeael42.tumblr.com/ Dark Azeael

    I shall go graffiti some signs.

  • OldBoris

    I once missed an exit as well. But it was marked correctly. Maybe I should go draw dicks on the sign instead.

    • http://azeael42.tumblr.com/ Dark Azeael

      Have fun in prison.

  • Clyde Barrow

    Hmm, I-5 is difficult to miss…perhaps the artist should be taking the bus.

    • lonelydisco

      In ’91?

      • Clyde Barrow

        ’91 is as good as year as any, trust me.

        • lonelydisco

          I meant with that freeway sign in ’91.