Richard Ankrom was fed up. LA's signage was deficient, so in 2001, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Here's Nate Rogers describing the problem for theLAnd:
For many years, if you were traveling north on the 110 in downtown Los Angeles and were intending to go north on the 5, there was no easily visible signage to prepare you for the sudden interchange. And it’s not just any interchange, either — it’s a strange corkscrew of an exit on the left side of the freeway, sneaking up on you at the end of a tunnel. Without a decent amount of warning, you would very likely miss it — and plenty of people certainly did — ending up halfway to Pasadena before realizing what had happened.
Ankrom decided to create the sign that should have been there all along. He researched its design, cut the aluminum, painted it, and convinced the company that made the circular reflectors to give him some under the pretense of creating a film.
The film wasn't a total lie. Ankrom documented the project in a short video, and the whole thing is worth a watch:
Under cover of darkness on August 5, 2001, Ankrom climbed up a ladder and hung the sign above the highway. Thanks in part to his hardhat and safety vest, which helped him look like he belonged there, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) crew working nearby didn't stop him.
The most remarkable part of the project is that Ankrom did such a good job, Caltrans decided to keep his work up after they caught wind of the stunt when he released the video nine months later:
In a shocking moment of humility, they noted that, while they didn’t approve of Ankrom’s methods, they couldn’t deny the quality of his work. Not only would they not be pressing charges — they were going to leave his handiwork up.
The whole incident reminds me of this famous quote from Steve Jobs:
When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it . . . Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.
Ankram's act of "guerrilla public service" blurred the line between performance art and genuine social contribution. His work is a powerful reminder that the way our world is designed isn't inevitable or immutable. It's shaped by the people with the motivation and ambition to change it.
You can, too.