The image of two gay radio hosts on the billboard near the corner of Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue had been defaced not once but twice.
The first time, vandals covered it entirely with dark purple paint. The second time, it was battered with rounds of white paintballs.
FOR THE RECORD:
Defaced billboard: A caption in the Dec. 23 California section that accompanied an article about a vandalized billboard that was turned into artwork misidentified radio hosts Craig Olsen and Robbie Laughlin. Olsen is at right in the photograph and Laughlin is at left. —
After that, one of the hosts, Craig Olsen of "The Craig & Robbie Hour," decided against a third reprinting of the billboard vinyl, which depicts him clowning with co-host Robbie Laughlin. Instead, he hired artist Jaime Ochoa to incorporate the defacement into an artwork he calls a "message of hope."
The result is an unusual combination of advertisement and art rising over the westbound lanes of Los Angeles' Beverly Boulevard. Ochoa used the drips of white paint to create black-and-white religious symbols, a dove and a child holding a sign that reads, "PEACE."
"It is a billboard that you notice, and you especially notice it when it's been defaced," said Scott Burau, a neighbor who drives past the sign often. "And if you noticed the billboard before, now you pause for a moment to think about what you're looking at."
Olsen owns a furniture showroom less than a mile from the billboard. He had previously rented it to advertise for his store, but after he started his online radio show with Laughlin about a year ago, he switched the image to help draw listeners.
Longtime friends, Olsen and Laughlin spend their hour on Global Voice Broadcasting interviewing guests for an upbeat, spontaneous show that touches on topics such as fashion, interior design and celebrity gossip. They hired photographer Gregory K. Metcalf to help create the original image for the billboard. He decided to position the pair like arm wrestlers and had them fight over a microphone between them.
"If you know Craig and Robbie, you can't get a word edgewise in with them," Metcalf said. "It was a funny play off their personality — like, 'Who's going to get the next joke in, the next one-liner?'"
Metcalf said the image "had nothing to do with homosexuality," though Olsen acknowledged: "We are cute."
The sign debuted in July. Weeks later it was painted over in purple. Olsen was perplexed but rebounded quickly. He had another, identical wrap commissioned and installed.
"If they don't want to see our image, well then … that's too bad," said Olsen, who lives in nearby Hancock Park. "They're going to have to see our image because this is our community."
Shortly after the image was restored, Olsen said he heard rumors that some neighbors in the Fairfax district objected to it. One of the workers who had helped with the reinstallation told him that passersby had complained and that one had called the sign "too gay for our neighborhood."
Then in early November, about three months after the purple paint, Olsen found the image of his face peppered with streaky white paintballs.
The radio hosts don't know for sure that the billboard was defaced as an anti-gay message, but they suspect it, and came to view the vandalism as a hate crime. Olsen began to wonder about the safety of his store.
"A quietness came over me," Olsen said. Even though it was just paintballs, "somebody had to take a gun, and I was a target. This felt more violent," he said.
"I felt like somebody had smacked me across the face and said, 'Get out.' But I wasn't going to roll over.'"
Olsen conducted his own investigation, traveling Beverly Boulevard from La Cienega Boulevard to La Brea Avenue. Thinking the paintballs might have been the work of teenage troublemakers, he looked for other defaced billboards. He didn't find any.
Sign operators at Clearview Media filed a police report on the first defacement in late July, and authorities said the crime is being investigated as felony vandalism. So far, detectives have no leads.
Olsen decided he had to stand up for himself and Laughlin. But he also wanted to make a statement: We belong here.
So Olsen connected with Ochoa, a friend of a friend, who had also passed the billboard many times on his way to work. Olsen wanted Ochoa to find an artistic way to depict diversity without covering up the old image entirely. He wanted whoever vandalized the billboard to see some paint spots left behind as reminders.
As a Latino artist, Ochoa said he is part of two groups that are often discriminated against, so he was enthusiastic about the project. The Silver Lake resident said he used the paint drippings as a canvas and tried to layer them into his images. He chose mostly black and white paint for a design he called "bold and simple" and tried to include lots of religious symbols so as "not to leave anyone out."
Then he painted a globe on top of the photo of the two hosts and made it appear as though they were hugging the world instead of wrestling for the microphone. A close inspection reveals a few streaks of white paint that didn't get incorporated into the design.
"It's almost like my holiday card to my community," Olsen said.
The billboard has gone weeks without damage, but Olsen remains on edge.
On a recent afternoon, as the radio hosts posed for pictures in front of the sign, the scene attracted some curious looks and a few hard stares.
Olsen grinned wide for the camera.
"I want the person who did this," he said, "to walk by and see that I made it better."