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Artist Richard Ankrom kept getting mixed up when driving a certain section of the L.A. freeways, so he took it on himself to fix the problem -- and make it a performance art project at the same time. It succeeded exactly as he had hoped: everyone, including the California Department of Transportation, thought it was a "legit" change in the sign. From the 12 May 2002 issue:

Give Me a Sign!

Richard Ankrom, 46, an artist in Los Angeles, Calif., planned his latest masterpiece, a combination paint and performance work, for two years: he altered a major road sign on the Harbor Freeway in downtown. He put up his work in broad daylight, but was unnoticed because he was dressed as a road worker. The audience: 150,000 motorists per day. The payoff: no one noticed, not even state transportation engineers. The plan was to announce the project a year later, but a friend tipped off the press after 9 months. The modification, done to exact Federal Highway Administration specifications, helps motorists navigate a complicated transition ahead. "The experts are saying that Mr. Ankrom did a fantastic job," said a Caltrans spokeswoman. "They thought it was an internal job." The agency plans to leave the modification in place, since it is in fact helpful to motorists. Ankrom says helping out motorists "was the whole point." (Los Angeles Times) ...If You Want Something Done Right, Do it Yourself -- Industrial Division.

A Put Up Job
[Fighting 'city hall' can be most rewarding.] Photo composite of Richard Ankrom modifying a Los Angeles freeway sign -- in broad daylight. To help motorists navigate a complicated multi-freeway junction, Ankrom added the word "NORTH" and the Interstate 5 shield to the far left portion of the sign so people going that way knew what lane to get in. Yet no one "official" realized it wasn't a real change until one of Ankrom's friends spilled the beans. All six people shown in the photo are Ankrom at different times during the installation. (© Richard Ankrom, composited from photos by Jim Payne, reprinted with permission.)

13 Comments on This Entry

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Posted by alice: battle creek, MI on November 24, 2008:

Hi! I seem to remember from when this story was first published that there was some question over where the sixth image of Ankrom is, but I don't remember the answer. I just checked again, but I really can only find five of him. Can you help?

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If you look closely at the far-left image, you can see there are two hardhats, and two vests -- so there are two of him merged there. -rc

Posted by Mike from Dallas on November 27, 2008:

Probably the weirdest part of this story is that they decided to keep the improvement. Bureaucracy has never been noted for intelligent decisions, especially when the Rules are much more important than the intent or purpose of the rules, as evidenced in your #748 issue containing The Tomb of Stifled Patriotism.

Posted by Ian, Selangor, Malaysia on December 30, 2008:

Mike from Dallas: that was my thought as well when I read this story again today. But I'm glad that Caltrans has some sensible people in responsible positions.... guess more so than your Federal Government! :-)

Posted by Calvin, Singapore on June 13, 2009:

Well, someone forgot to replace their brains with a rulebook. :D

Posted by Bonnie, Florida on January 1, 2011:

In past years our dirt road had become drug corridor central. So we ordered internet signs that look like the real deal. We bought the same type of upright that the road department attaches them to so we could fake out the stupid drug people.

The signs read PRIVATE ROAD 20 MPH and a second one that reads DEAD END. And yes, the incredibly stupid druggies that were using the road the week before, saw the signs, got confused and left.

This worked for two years and then somebody complained that ours was not a dead end and they wished to use it to exit to a major highway. So they called the county to come out. Checked out our signs. Talked to each other in their trucks for awhile, came back two weeks later and upgraded our real signs and left our phonies out there, still diverting the drug traffic.

Ah yes, the real world is much stranger than fiction.

Posted by Dennis, Washington on February 20, 2011:

Unfortunately, this is a harbinger of bad news: the signs that Mr. Ankrom put up are long gone, and nobody knows where they went. But fear not, my fellow road geeks who haven't been in the LA Basin for a while: CalTrans has upgraded the roads, installed electronic signs, and there is even an I-5 shield where the old one was!

Posted by Stuart - Chonburi on May 11, 2012:

"The experts are saying that Mr. Ankrom did a fantastic job," said a Caltrans spokeswoman. "They thought it was an internal job."

Make up your mind, Ms Caltrans Spokeswoman.

Posted by Pete, Syracuse NY on May 12, 2012:

Here's a video Mr. Ankrom made about his efforts:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Clgl63CWOkM

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Terrific! Nice to see he released this on the 10th anniversary. I had heard about the film, but had not seen it until now. -rc

Posted by Bonnie Florida on May 12, 2012:

Just saw the film. The guy is an artist as well as an activist. I love this kind of thing.

Posted by Mark, Narellan, New South Wales, Austrailia on May 13, 2012:

This reminded me of a concerned citiizen in our city who went around fitting 2 flashing amber lights -- with timers -- on "School Zone" signs, as a warning/reminder to motorists to slow down as there would (likely) be many school children around, and possibly crossing the road without looking.

Before too long some local government bureaucrat decided that as they weren't official they (the lights) would have to be removed.

Due to the publicity generated someone finally saw the light, (groan....) and the remining lights were left up.

In fact a large number of "School Zones" now have these lights, with hard-wired power, thanks to the actions of one guerrila public servant and the eventual common sense of the previosly gorilla-like public servants.

Posted by DeeDee Varner, San Diego, CA on May 13, 2012:

I traveled this section periodically back in those days and missed the exit more than once! I'm tickled to see that someone intelligent took it upon themselves to right (left) the situation. Yes, highway signage has changed since then, but his art arrived none too soon!

Posted by Don, Indiana on May 15, 2012:

In 1967, driving a semi truck in Los Angeles for the first time, I was almost in tears trying to navigate the freeways. Yes, the sign said Interstate 5 or 10 but never a direction, only a location. I didn't know the location of Santa Monica, San Bernardino, Bakersfield or Santa Ana. I only knew I wanted to go north or east. The direction was never given, only a location. An heaven help me on taking a freeway that was a state route. And it was always a "the" 60-57-11- The Pomona, The Harbor, The Pasadena. Yes today I know the roads, but I will never forget.

Posted by Leonard, S.F. Bay Area on November 30, 2013:

I grew up in L.A. and I think I knew pretty well where things were but I was always peeved at the stupidity of signs reading (for example) "Sacramento 380 miles" or "Los Angeles 380 miles". Yet, many decades later, this issue of Caltrans signs giving destinations instead of compass directions is still a pervasive problem, not just in L.A. but in the whole state. I've seen a number of signs where they added compass directions as an afterthought and it usually is obvious that it was an afterthought.

But then there are the places where the compass directions make no sense. For example, there's a freeway on-ramp in the San Fernando Valley with these two signs on one post for a single on-ramp to a single freeway: "Ventura Freeway West" / "U.S. 101 North". And yet that's topped by some location in the S.F. Bay Area that I haven't seen but was told about where a freeway segment runs north/south and has two signs on it indicating two different freeway numbers, one East and one West. Go figure...

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Well of course it makes no sense: they're labeled that way for political reasons. -rc

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