The (free)way and the light

Times Staff Writer

Sure, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles faces millions of dollars in bills from recent court case settlements.

But are finances so tight that it has decided to sell advertising space on its grandest church steeple?

That’s the way it looked to startled motorists in downtown Los Angeles when they glimpsed a giant sign on the side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.


“Your Ad HERE,” proclaimed the huge letters across the cathedral’s landmark bell tower.

A telephone number was printed at the top and bottom of the 50-foot-wide illuminated sign, visible to thousands of commuters stuck in slow-moving rush-hour traffic Wednesday evening on the northbound Hollywood Freeway.

The sign was gone the next day, but questions lingered for church officials.

The advertising offer wasn’t theirs, said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese.

“A church tower is different from a billboard. If it wasn’t, we would have been selling ad space 2,000 years ago,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to communicate without making ad space out of your sanctuaries. I think most people would react negatively to that.”

A call to the phone number included on the tower sign brought a different response from James Cui. He’s a 28-year-old Highland Park graphic artist.


“I’m flattered you noticed,” Cui said. “I hoped I was hitting a lot of people with it. That’s the trick in L.A. The only way to hit a lot of people is on the freeway.”

When he’s not working at his day job with a Pasadena engineering corporation, Cui moonlights as a party “VJ.”

“I mix videos for raves and parties and project them on walls. It’s a niche market. It’s very subcultural,” he explained. “But it can be restricting. The audience is there to party and doesn’t recognize what we’re doing. There’s a certain disconnect -- a VJ is very much wallpaper.”

So Cui has begun looking for walls with high public visibility to display his artwork. With a laptop computer, a video projector and a gasoline-powered portable electric generator, he cruises the city, looking for clean walls in dark places.

“Downtown has a lot of bare walls, but nobody’s downtown after dark. It’s all about the audience,” said Cui, who calls himself “VJ Fader.”

On Wednesday, he noticed the cathedral bell tower. It is next to the busy freeway and its bottom portion is free of ambient light from street lamps and the cathedral’s decorative spotlights. At 6 p.m., Cui set up his equipment on the Grand Avenue freeway bridge and fired up the 2,000-lumen projector.

Alternating with the “Your Ad HERE” image was one that read, “Your Corporate Logo Here.” For 2 1/2 hours, he stood on the bridge and watched motorists’ double-takes as they spied the signs -- which were accented with animated, laser-like moving graphics.

The bell tower site was better than the spot near the Harbor Freeway at 3rd Street and Beaudry Avenue where Cui has twice before projected his artwork on a bare wall.

Both times his imagery -- which included short film clips -- attracted the attention of authorities.

“The first time was election night and a CHP cop stopped and asked if I had anything with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on it. I had some old stuff from his movie ‘Pumping Iron,’ and I put it up. It showed Arnold smoking pot,” Cui said.

The highway patrolman got a laugh out of that. But it was a different story the second time. CHP officers issuing a ticket to a freeway motorist were unamused when they glanced up and saw the film clip being projected: The continuous loop depicted a topless woman with a black “censored” bar covering her eyes.

“One of them came up and said there were kids around. He was upset. He gave me a warning,” Cui said. “I won’t do porn again. I certainly wouldn’t do it at the cathedral.”

No one at the cathedral, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- who last month announced the $40-million settlement of clergy sex abuse claims -- saw Wednesday’s church tower signs.

“It sounds like he let us off pretty easy,” the archdiocese’s Tamberg joked of Cui.

City officials may not let Cui off that easy if they catch him projecting signage on the sides of buildings, however.

Such activity is illegal in Los Angeles, and violators can be cited for a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

“What he put up is the equivalent to an advertising sign and not a work of art,” said Dave Keim, head of the city Department of Building and Safety’s code enforcement bureau.

Additionally, city law prohibits continuous, full-motion video signs, he said.

“To put up an artwork he’d have to get permission from the Cultural Heritage Board. To us, anything that attracts the attention of the public is a ‘sign’ and you need a permit.”

For VJ Fader, that could be a bad sign.