Walking down a street in Los Angeles you might encounter a wheatpaste poster on a wall, a stenciled face on the sidewalk, a sticker on a lamppost. And when you look up you can also find giant, spray-painted letters or characters on the most visible canvases of the street–billboards. Last month, I visited the Downtowm Los Angeles Art Walk Lounge for a collaborative show between Adam Clark and Jim Daichendt, the authors of the new books, Billboard Bandits: Outlaw Artists in the Sky and Stay Up!: Los Angeles Street Art, respectively. There, I encountered the work of some of my favorite street artists as they covered 6 x 18 inch billboard replicas with their signature style. Curious about the trend of taking over these towering advertisements, I sat down with Clark’s book and discovered a thriving, risky, and intriguing culture.
In the recently released Billboard Bandits: Outlaw Artists in the Sky, from Bandit Publishing, author Adam Clark dives into the underground work of billboard graffiti and its many manifestations. While not all billboard creations break the law, Clark invites the reader to give merit to even those that do. Clark walks the readers through the billboard lexicon–the distinction between terms like pieces and throw ups, for example–and explores the nature of and impact of these mostly illegal works through keen observations and intimate talks with artists. In the section on “pieces”–as the more artistic side of these so-called billboard bandits’ work is called–Clark states:
The “illegal street piece” is the most risky bomb for a writer to pull off. When carried out well they are works of art, given as gifts by graffiti writers to the city streets.
Augor, from the collective Mad Society Kings (MSK), sheds more light on this idea, explaining how he eventually learned to morph his spray-can work with the billboard to create a dynamic, eye-catching piece. He also shares the thrill of creating somewhere inevitable noticeable:
A lot of people think that they should be painting where other people paint like an abandoned building in downtown but it just gets hidden and not really seen. The billboard can’t be ignored; everybody sees those giant ads so why wouldn’t I want to take one to advertise my brand, Augor?
Following the journeys of the spray-can stars helps the reader explore the entire scene taking place not only in Los Angeles but throughout a number of cities. The many anecdotes also illustrate how while some people might descry the destruction of an expensive billboard, others embrace the transformation of these huge surfaces.
Clark also touches on something called “Billboard Liberation,” revealing a movement in which artists take over billboards to make oftentimes socio-political statements. Think Shark Toof and Shepard Fairey.
By the end of Billboard Bandits, readers get a thorough background of billboard takeovers in all their forms and insight into the motivation behind some of the most daring figures in the city. It’s no small feat to climb up to a billboard and create towering works in the dark of the night. While the issue of legality remains a hot topic, Billboard Bandits ultimately asserts that these figures showcase an unmistakeable creativity worth looking at twice.
Top: first two pages of Billboard Bandits
Billboard Bandits, by Adam Clark, published by Bandit Press