Let's go see the bad boy."
With that pledge, master sign painter Gerald Jupiter rappels the 75 feet or so down Mt. Lee's rocky hillside. He pauses only once, to remove a baseball cap that advertises "Rideshare" and to wipe his sweaty brow. The Griffith Park maintenance worker's "bad boy" is the Hollywood sign.
Jupiter, a stout 52-year-old with a Louisiana accent that stresses the first syllable of a word, hauls his rollers, brushes and paint to the sign about once a month. Today he's not carting any cans of flat white, and for that he can thank the 24-hour surveillance cameras installed last year to guard the sign against graffiti.
"Back in '90 or '91, I was going every day," he says. "I could lose five pounds going down and 10 pounds trying to get back up. Sometimes the letters are hard to paint, like when the wind is blowing, it will knock the roller out of your hand. You're fighting those gnats, and the crows are flying 'round, and you got to paint and look." He pantomimes a near-fall from the sign's base, 500 feet above the closest Lake Hollywood house. "Because if you get too close you're going downhill."
Each letter--panels of corrugated sheet metal bolted together on a steel frame--rises a dizzying 50 feet. To paint anything higher than arm's reach, he must go behind a letter and scramble up its steel backbone. "The first O, the L-L and the Y are easy to paint; it's flat, you got room," Jupiter says. "But the H and the W and the last two O's and the D? There's no ground in front. And I'm not strapped to anything. I'm just loose and free, loose and free.
"Remember James Cagney? 'Top of the world'? That's where we're at. You sit down and you're by yourself and it's forever, man. Nobody to bug you. Just take your time, stop, look around. 'Hey, there's the observatory. There's the Sports Arena. That's Long Beach.' You're off into it. When it's cool, it's a nice feel up here. But in the afternoon, you feel that heat. Whoooo. The tin gets hot, real hot.
"I've been going up here since '89. I got on general relief and I was putting in cement fences for the park. They just said, 'Go paint.' The first time I didn't like coming up here, but I got used to it. It's a lot of fun."
Like the time Ross Perot supporters turned the sign into a campaign poster, or when pranksters used sheets to transform it to read "Hollyweed" or "Hollygood." Once, fueled by 24 cans of Budweiser, a man handcuffed himself to a cross he had attached to the Y. "We took him and it down, but we couldn't drag it up. We had to get a saw to cut it up." Most of the time, though, Jupiter is limited to graffiti patrol. "People will call the mayor's office, who'll call the supervisors and say, 'Send Jupiter to the Hollywood sign, I think it's messed up.' Black is easy to cover up, and silver. But any color like a water blue is hard. I'll go three times to paint it, and it dries, and it shows right back up again."
He lets out a quiet laugh. "I never found any guns up here," Jupiter says. "Or money." He has stumbled upon some cottontail rabbits, confused deer and, just maybe, as the sole painter of the most famous sign in the world, a little bit of notoriety.
"Could be, could be," Jupiter nods. "A lot of people might have taken my picture from down in Beachwood when I'm up here." In fact, more shutters have probably clicked in front of Gerald Jupiter's work than at the "Mona Lisa." "Well, you know," he says, "I always do a good job."