A cluster of customers waits in line at the Tacos Mexico stand beside the trendy Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. As traffic flows between the canyons of buildings lining Broadway, a candy-red billboard looms three stories above on the side of the Ace, emblazoned with blocky white letters spelling out: "Never Odd or Even."
The arcane palindrome is not promoting a new flavor of toothpaste or a rock band's latest album. It's a piece of street art designed to do exactly what it's doing: Make people absent-mindedly wonder about it while lunching on carne asada burritos and salted radishes or while driving by after work.
The 11-by-23-foot piece by L.A. native Brian Roettinger was installed Monday as part of a new project called Dear DTLA. Roettinger's design, which will be on view through early August, is the first of eight billboards devoted to the work of a different artist each month through February. The lineup will include London-based Scottish artist Robert Montgomery, known for his text-based street art, and the Italian communications research center Fabrica.
"Billboards in Los Angeles — not all but most — are either selling products or advertising movies," Roettinger wrote in an email from London, where he was working on the stage design for DJ Mark Ronson's live show. "So the excitement here was making a billboard that wasn't meant to sell anything other than an idea. Originally I wanted the billboard to say, 'Nothing is for sale!'"
The Ace, which opened a year and a half ago in a 14-story Spanish Gothic former office tower that dates to 1927, is known for engaging with artists, writers and musicians via the building's ornate theater. Looking for an additional avenue of public interaction, Ace Hotel partner Kelly Sawdon turned to the billboard.
"We've always seen the billboard as a megaphone to the city," she said. "It's an opportunity to broadcast something out of the ordinary, connective, weird, heady or idealistic."
Billboard art is not new, but its rising profile certainly is. The Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a nonprofit devoted to site-specific public art, recently completed the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, which consisted of 100 artist-created billboards along Interstate 10 from Florida to California, installed from fall 2013 to spring 2015. LALA Arts, which champions the L.A. street art movement through its mural program L.A. Freewalls, has a Public Works billboard project featuring work by artists including Ron English and Shepard Fairey.
LALA Arts founder Daniel Lahoda points out that, 30 years ago, English made a name for himself by hijacking billboards, a form of art he called "subvertising." That work was illegal, and English considered it a success if he didn't go to jail.
These days, Lahoda has teamed with Clear Channel to use the company's empty billboards for art, with benefits for both organizations.
LALA Arts invites artists to hand-paint the vinyl wrapped around billboards or have something printed on it. The reworked vinyl then gets placed wherever a billboard goes blank. Each vinyl canvas can weather the elements for about a year.
"Back in the day, getting on a billboard required people hanging from the side of a building vandalizing it," Lahoda says. "So now we're doing it in a legitimate way. But it's not without compromise. It's not like our artists can make fun of other advertisers."
Subvertising it is not, but artistic it can be, in spades. For many, the billboard is an ideal canvas for Los Angeles, a city defined by cars.
Montgomery, one of the artists on the Ace roster, worked with billboards last summer. His largest public exhibition to date, "Art Above the Streets," was presented in the form of 10 citywide billboards by the Do Art Foundation in collaboration with Art Share L.A. Each was a wordy poem written in white letters on a stark black background. They appeared on prominent street corners, including La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards, and Venice Boulevard at Motor Avenue.
One of them read: "The spectacle of advertising creates images of false beauty so suave and so impossible to attain that you will hurt inside and never even know where the hurt comes from, and in all pictures now the famous people have already begun to look lost and lonely."
"The billboard is a place where the artists' work is in residence," Ace partner Sawdon says, adding that artists were selected based on their ability to provide commentary on contemporary Los Angeles. "In a way, it functions as our art gallery for the hotel."
A digital partnership with file-sharing service WeTransfer can be found at deardtla.com, where visitors can download images and follow along as the project progresses.
Roettinger, who is known for his album design work for St. Vincent, Liars, Childish Gambino and No Age, is more analog than digital. But he hopes his design will make people scratch their heads all the same.
"It faces the street and traffic flows both ways," he says. "I wanted to do something typographic that would leave viewers asking themselves, 'What does that mean? Or does it mean anything?'"