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This is the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest freeway sign pranks ever pulled off. A guerrilla artist fixed a notoriously bad freeway sign right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Right out in the open, he made the addition, and it lasted for years before the state of California caught it. It was an elaborate production that looked too real, right down to the reflectors in the letters. Only in LA.

This happened in August 2001. Not all Los Angelinos actually go through downtown, so we need some help, at least in the days before Waze or Google Maps. Los Angeles street artist Richard Ankrom would miss going north on Interstate 5 traveling down the 110 right in the heart of downtown. A number of freeways converge there in the shadow of LA City Hall. The sign informing you of the proper lane was a small, unnoticeable sign off to the side. It was not part of the giant overhead signs normally used for such big freeway transitions. 

The artist wanted to make a freeway sign that would aid travelers and go undetected

Fake LA freeway sign
Fake downtown LA freeway sign | Richard Ankrom

Ankrom’s plan was to make a sign to add to the overhead that would fix the problem. He was versed in sign making, so that would be easy. It was the installation that was challenging. Should he get caught-even trying to improve things, it would result in a huge fine and prison time. 

He discovered CalTrans specifications for its signs to get started. Then he stealthily measured existing signs and matched a Pantone color chart to them. Construction took place in his Lincoln Heights digs. Getting the round reflectors for the letters proved the biggest challenge to making it. 

Ankrom found the reflector company and told them he was doing props for a movie. They went for the story and he was set. Making the sign proved to be simple. The finished product was indistinguishable from a real CalTrans sign; he even weathered it a bit to blend in.

Planning how to install his fake freeway sign was very elaborate

But now the hard part was the next step; installing it over the busy downtown freeway. This took more planning. He enlisted a few friends to film his attempt from a number of vantage points around the sign. They would capture footage for a video he would make should this be successful. 

His truck got a fake company sign on the doors. Ankrom purchased the proper hardhat, fluorescent orange vest, and other accouterments to make it appear legit. He also faked a work order in case he was stopped. And to look even more official, he carried a clipboard and cut his hair. 

With everyone in place and his fake truck, clothing, and clipboard ready, he made his move. Ankrom parked his truck near 4th and Beaudry streets, grabbed his stuff and approached the sign. Disappearing under some brush, he soon popped up next to the sign.

Some real CalTrans workers toiling nearby eyed Ankrom as he made his approach

Fake LA freeway sign close up
Fake LA freeway sign | Richard Ankrom

Ankrom was sure he would get caught as some CalTrans workers just off of the freeway spotted him. They seemed more interested in what he was doing than what they were there for. But he casually set up his ladder and began his ascent to the catwalk in front of the sign. What seemed like a million cars were scurrying below.

He said he had to purposely slow down to make it look like this was just another stop in his day. But he was very nervous. He drilled the holes, yanked the sign into position, screwed it down, and he was almost done. 

Why did Ankrom wait eight years to tell the world?

Guerrilla artist Richard Ankrom
Guerrilla artist Richard Ankrom | Nate Rogers

Grabbing his tools, he walked the catwalk to the ladder, climbed down, got into his truck. He never looked back. His fake sign stayed in place for years before CalTrans found out through a series of interviews seven years after the stunt. Why did Ankrom wait that long to tell the world? After seven years, the statute of limitations runs out and he can’t be arrested. 

The sign itself was a much-needed aid for busy LA travelers. CalTrans left the sign and eventually made an official one that remains to this day, 20 years after the prank. The story is an oft-told tale that proves art can be more than, well, more than just art.


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