Artist or Sign Painter? Richard Ankrom's Notorious Signs

Richard Ankrom Scaling a Sign Structure Over the 110 Freeway.

In 2001, Los Angeles-based artist Richard Ankrom became notorious when he disguised himself as a Caltrans worker and installed a highway sign. Ankrom scaled an overhang on the 110 Freeway near the 3rd Street onramp and - without permission - installed a directional North sign and an Interstate 5 shield to indicate the 5 North Interchange two miles ahead. Caltrans had never put in any signage for the interchange and the spot was legendarily confusing to motorists. Intrigued, newspapers and media outlets pounced on the story (including KCET's own Life & Times) and Ankrom entered the annals of local art history with his act of Guerilla Public Service by blurring a line our Full Dollar project will be considering over the next few months: artist versus sign painter. Artist Ankrom credits his background as a sign painter for allowing him to so perfectly replicate existing North and Interstate 5 signage that even Caltrans had to admit his work followed existing specs. Departures asked Ankrom to tell us about the line between sign painting and artist, and he shared the following:

The sign business has helped me with methods, materials, how to sell, stay out of trouble and making a buck. I was drawn to sign painting because of the skill, and profit margin. I apprenticed at City Sign Co. where the work was 50-50: the shop got half, the painter got the other half, so the better and faster one got, the more money one made. The main tool(s), a brush, is usually hand made from animal hair. The different types of hair and the shape determine the use, technique and look. There is a specialty paint called lettering enamel, made for signs and pin-striping cars. Customers have an idea what they want, I listen carefully, guide them and offer suggestions.

The artwork may be provided by the customer, or I design something with a price and email it for approval, or sketch it on site. The artwork is to scale, so it can be drafted on the job or a pounce pattern (a full size paper pattern perforated with holes, dusted with chalk, leaving an outline) is made in the shop. Then the job is painted, large letters are "cut-in" with a brush and filled with a roller. I have to be proud of every project, it works as quality control. If the customer isn't happy they won't call back.

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A segment from the documentary, "Guerrilla Public Service" which showcases Ankrom and some of the techniques that go into sign painting. Credit: Richard Ankrom and Amy Inouye.

I sell painted and vinyl signs to my landlord. Wall lettering may be anywhere, as far south as San Diego and as far north as Santa Barbara. Gold leaf work is the top rung of the ladder for a sign painter. Most comes from the West Side. For glass gilding, one must be able to letter backwards and execute single stroke letters beforehand. It is the most difficult and frustrating, but it is beautiful. Vinyl letters took a great deal of work away. Computers cannot paint walls yet, or do burnished gold on glass. A generation of people have now grown up with vinyl lettering, and want something with a hand lettered look, it does have more character. In all fairness I have a vinyl cutter, and use it sometimes for masking or making a simple no parking sign. Being able to letter has certainly improved my brush skills and techniques as an artist. I may use some of the techniques in the sign business to speed up the art making process, and it is a jumping off point for creativity.

Wanting to start a "fine" art career I moved to a loft Downtown. Having been evicted from industrial spaces for living on the premises and chased out of residential areas for welding, spray painting, et cetera, I was looking for a zoned live-work situation. I now live at the Brewery Art Colony.

What do you think of Richard's work? Are there places in Los Angeles that could use an intervention from an artist-slash-sign-painter?

And thank you Richard for the interview.

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