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How an Artist Helped Millions of Drivers With a Counterfeit Highway Sign

When Caltrans couldn't make a useful sign to direct motorists through a confusing interchange, a brave artist snuck his own onto an existing one.
Richard Ankrom Hero Image
screen grab via YouTube

There’s nothing like the feeling of navigating a messy highway interchange and getting surprised by terrible signage. Oh, you didn’t know your exit in a quarter mile is actually on the left side? Too bad you’re in the far right lane… and there it goes. It’s extraordinarily frustrating. But what can you do? Well, you could try building your own sign to state agency specs and setting it up to help other drivers—which is exactly what an artist did in Los Angeles two decades ago in an act of guerrilla public service, before GPS directions were common and reliable. Amazingly, it worked.

Here’s the backdrop: The 110 freeway runs north-south through the LA basin, from Long Beach all the way up through downtown before terminating in Pasadena. Along the way it intersects with several other freeways including I-5, a major route running the full length of California. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through that 110-to-I-5 interchange every month. The exit to I-5 north from the 110 north is abrupt, tucked away on the left side at the end of a tunnel. And for decades, there were no signs leading up to it warning people to get into the left lane in time. Everyone kept missing it.

Richard Ankrom was one of those drivers. An artist and signmaker by trade, in 2001 he had grown so annoyed by the interchange he decided he had to fix this problem, which the California Department of Transportation had no interest in addressing.

“I used to live in Orange County and had gotten lost because it wasn’t adequately signed,” said Ankrom in an interview with ABC7. That’s when it clicked: “I’m a sign guy. I could do this.”

His goal was to construct a big “Interstate 5” shield logo plus the word NORTH in the normal highway-sign font, and affix it to an existing sign in the middle of downtown LA about 2.5 miles ahead of the exit.

He spent more than three months preparing, researching the color and shape of the signs, mixing his own custom paint to get the colors just right, and applying a bit of faux patina to finish it off. Ankrom even spent time tracking down the button-shaped reflectors used on other legitimate signs and convincing the supplier to give him some. Once he was satisfied that it looked authentic, he came up with a plan to install it.

At first, the artist wanted to dress in black and install the sign under the cloak of darkness. He instead decided if what he was doing was truly in the name of the public’s wellbeing that it should be done in broad daylight. So that’s exactly what he did, complete with a hard hat and reflective vest that he bought from Home Depot. Life was simpler before 9/11.

Ankrom parked his truck on a nearby street in August of 2001. Dressed in construction garb and armed with his homemade sign, he climbed up a ladder on the side of the 110 freeway before waltzing onto the catwalk. His friends were nearby equipped with cameras to capture the event, aiming lenses toward the artist to capture every moment of the installation. Once he had hung the sign along with the “North” marker, Ankrom was gone as quickly as he had arrived.

And then…nothing. Caltrans didn’t notice. Passing motorists were thrilled but figured the improvement had taken place at the direction of Caltrans. It wasn’t until Ankrom leaked his actions to the press that the true story was known.

The original sign with Ankrom’s artwork remained until 2009 when the whole thing was replaced by Caltrans. The paint had faded, but the message remained with a lasting impact. The replacement sign erected by the Department of Transportation proudly sports the 5 North placard exactly where Ankrom had put it nearly a decade prior, and it remains there to this day to help motorists that would otherwise be just as confused as he was.

And in case you’re wondering—no, Ankrom’s guerrilla public work didn’t end with the sign in LA. The artist says that he continued to work on secret pieces that could land him in the slammer over the next two decades, and possibly even today.

“I have to wait for the statute of limitations so I don’t go to jail,” Ankrom quipped.

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