What more could an artist want?
An unusual medium. A chance to take a jab at the establishment. An almost endless audience, speeding to see the work.
Richard Ankrom created that enviable milieu above an unlikely canvas--the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
For two years, the rail-thin artist planned and prepared for his most ambitious project, a piece that would be seen by more than 150,000 motorists every day on the freeway near 3rd Street.
With friends documenting his every move on camera, Ankrom clandestinely installed the finished product on a gray August morning. For nine months, no one noticed. It even failed to catch the eye of California Department of Transportation officials
And that is exactly what Ankrom hoped for.
The 46-year-old Los Angeles artist designed, built and installed an addition to an overhead freeway sign--to exact state specifications--to help guide motorists on the sometimes confusing transition to the northbound Golden State Freeway a couple miles farther north.
He installed his handiwork in broad daylight, dressed in a hard hat and orange reflective vest to avoid raising suspicion. He even chopped off his shoulder-length blond hair to fit the role of a blue-collar freeway worker.
The point of the project, said Ankrom, was to show that art has a place in modern society--even on a busy, impersonal freeway. He also wanted to prove that one highly disciplined individual can make a difference.
Embarrassed Caltrans officials, who learned of the bogus sign from a local newspaper column, concede that the sign could be a help. They will leave it in place, for now. The transportation agency doesn't plan to press charges for trespassing or tampering with state property.
Why didn't the counterfeit sign get noticed?
"The experts are saying that Mr. Ankrom did a fantastic job," conceded Caltrans spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio. "They thought it was an internal job."
Ankrom's work has also won praise from some in the art world.
Mat Gleason, publisher of the Los Angeles art magazine Coagula, learned about the project a few months ago. He calls it "terrific" because it shows that art can "benefit people and at the same time tweak the bureaucracy a little."
The idea for the sign came to Ankrom back in 1999, when he found himself repeatedly getting lost trying to find the ramp to the north Golden State after the Harbor becomes the Pasadena Freeway. (The sharp left-lane exit sneaks up on drivers at the end of a series of four tunnels.)
He thought about complaining to Caltrans. But he figured his suggestion would get lost in the huge state bureaucracy. Instead, Ankrom decided to take matters into his own hands by adding a simple "North 5" to an existing sign.
"It needed to be done," he said from his downtown loft. "It's not like it was something that was intentionally wrong."
It didn't hurt that his work is displayed before 150,000 people daily. On an average day, even the Louvre gets only one-tenth that many visitors. He also didn't mind that his "guerrilla public service" made Caltrans look a bit foolish. "They are left with egg on their faces," he said.
Ankrom had planned to wait until August--a year after the installation--to reveal his forgery via video at an art show. But a photographer friend leaked the story.
From his tiny Brewery Art Complex loft, Ankrom said he tries to use his work to comment on current trends. The Seattle native fabricates hatchets embedded with roses and produces neon-illuminated laser guns. To pay the bills, he is also a freelance sign maker.
The expertise he gained in both fields helped him pull off the perfect counterfeit job.
He closely studied existing freeway signs, matching color swatches and downloading specifications from the Federal Highway Administration's Web site.
His biggest challenge was finding reflective buttons resembling those on Interstate signs--a dilemma finally resolved when he discovered a replica sold by a company in Tacoma, Wash.
The video he made of the entire process shows Ankrom snapping digital photos of existing Golden State Freeway signs and projecting the images onto paper, before tracing them onto a sheet of aluminum. He cut and painted the aluminum sign and even "aged" it with a layer of gray.
Ankrom affixed a contractor-style logo on the side of his pickup truck to add authenticity during the project. But closer examination might have raised suspicions. It read: Aesthetic De Construction.
He even printed up a bogus work order, just in case he was stopped by police. "I tried to make this airtight, because I didn't want anything to go wrong," he said.
In early August, Ankrom launched the final phase of his project. After friends were in place with video and still cameras, one gave the all-clear signal via walkie-talkie: "Move in, rubber ducky."
He made short work of the final installation--climbing up the sign and hanging over speeding traffic to install his addition. The main challenge was avoiding the razor wire on the way up.
Ankrom said he's not surprised that Caltrans isn't pressing charges, adding, "It wasn't straight-out vandalism."
For now, department officials say they will merely inspect the elements of Ankrom's sign to make sure they are securely fastened. They may be replaced in a few months as part of a program to retrofit all freeway signs with new, highly reflective models.
Caltrans officials had discussed adding more directional signs, but the agency spokeswoman said she is not sure why the department never followed through.
Ankrom said he would like Caltrans to return the work. "If they want to keep it up there, that is fine too," he said. "Hopefully it will help people out, which was the whole point."
Excerpts from the video of Richard Ankrom creating his highway sign artwork are on The Times' Web site. Go to latimes.com/artist.