Nothing Captures the Essence of a City and Its Citizens Like the Things That They Are Enticed to Buy, Fear, Respect, or Be Amused By. We Consider the Hook, the Artifice, the Sale and Aftermath of a London & Los Angeles Driveby, All Through the Lens of Robert Landau.
To be on the road is to offer ourselves, no matter the road or time of day. The billboards are there whether we’re cruising at sixty-five miles per hour, or doing fifty in a thirty-five zone, or inverting the equation during a bumper-to-bumper crawl so that it’s hours per mile. Monolith after monolith—multi-liths, really—each leased, brokered, and supposedly placed no less than 660 feet from the point where the road’s right of way is determined. Each twice as tall and twice as wide as a garage door. If we were to measure in Shaquille O’Neals, that would be two Shaqs high, by seven Shaqs wide, sizes determined by the California Department of Transportation. Often they are more visible than street signs, larger than the green freeway signage around them. To be on the road here is to give over our attention in the automatic, incremental way we absorb UV rays and ingest smog particulate with each breath.
The worst of them, those conceived in the broadest strokes of thought, seem to believe that we’re a people made of monstrous burgers, low-calorie beer, and rollover minutes. That we’ll pay twelve dollars to watch the Golden Gate Bridge get destroyed, again, because we’ve seen a giant Pac Man doing it every quarter mile for the past three weeks. That we’re dupes for questionable medical procedures and all manner of implants: follicular, dental, gastric, breast. That because a hip-hop mogul is paid to pretend-drink fruit-flavored wine, we’ll drink it for real. That if cows with poor spelling skills are posed in corny hijinks, we’ll forget that the bosses who bought the ad space are a bunch of homophobes.
They count on us to be vacuous and shallow, to want what is unattainable, staged, and ultimately false. Throughout Hollywood and Silverlake and Echo Park, there are plenty of opportunities to gawk. Some might believe that the girls in these billboards are the granddaughters of Angelyne, while cynics will counter that the neon-pink bombshell of Hollywood billboards long past had the sense to use her body to brand herself. Try as it might, a current model’s feigned indifference can’t mask backsliding corporate desperation. Essentially, the lace-covered assets in these current billboards make the same offer as the topless-bar billboards found anywhere in a five-mile radius of the City of Industry strip-club corridor. Those Valley Boulevard billboards say tomato. The ones on Sunset say tomato too, albeit with intentionally bad lighting. In both places, the billboards conjure the illusion that pleasure is to be had, and easily so. One might even give the Valley Boulevard billboards credit for being direct, since they also include directions at the bottom so that along the way we don’t get lost.
Sometimes the pleasure is in the past. The casino billboards may know this best. On the eastbound freeways, the 60 and the 10 and the 210, our tributaries to suburbia, the freeways are dotted with ads for casino concerts that prey on our sense of nostalgia and our need to feel relevant. Who knew New Edition was on tour? Who knew Engelbert Humperdinck was still alive? These billboards offer the elders among us a chance to reconnect with their younger, less burdened selves. They promise us a place in the midst of the action (and their sponsors hope we’ll lose whatever cash is on hand). As a bonus, if it’s a Tuesday, there’ll be unlimited tacos.
The more improbable the billboard, the greater the risk in erecting it. On the 605, just past the towering levels of interchange construction, there’s always a convention billboard that changes with whatever event’s on the horizon. Gatherings of hemp heads and tattoo lovers. Reptile aficionados en masse. If such events are not for you, these ads can seem reminiscent of a carnival barker announcing a freak show. But if you need to upgrade your bong or owning a gila monster is your thing, these billboards are calls to the mother ship.
Should one spend their life on the margins, identifying with a billboard can be a wonderful thing. Sure, it’s an ad. It’s also a validation of one’s existence. And of one’s purchasing power. To spot an announcement for Paquita la del Barrio, who’s never sung in English, or an ad for TV news that’s indecipherable unless you read Chinese, or a call to end bobcat trapping, is to have one’s existence recognized for a fleeting, instantaneous, windshield second. In a place where a bus of immigrant children is met with hateful protests, witnessing a billboard with the word “michelada” on it can feel like a momentary leveling of the score. Yes, these billboards beckon. Yes, these are for you.
And then there are the wildflowers. Commissioned by those who know that the backside of a billboard can be just as good as the front. That the blank side of a building isn’t exclusive superhero territory. Wheat-pasted in the middle of the night. Stencil images spray-painted or rolled on and dripping with haste. Tiles arranged in the shape of a space invader. A skull chatting on a cell phone. Andre’s posse. Spotting one of these is to feel a prick of resistance. It is the daily equivalent of discovering something green and beautiful sprouting in cracked concrete.
They are not meant to last, these broadcasts, sheets of vinyl, one stretched over another over another over another. Messages always changing. Dates always in the future. In a place as fluid and impermanent as ours, the billboard may be the ultimate way of making one’s point.
Photography: Robert Landau.
Images Courtesy: Robert Landau and Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, (2012), Angel City Press, Santa Monica.