Column: Zen and the art of guerrilla freeway signs
Once, maybe long ago, maybe last week, as you sat and stewed in traffic on some petrified stretch of freeway, you looked up at an overpass and saw a homemade sign that read #TREASON, or “SAVE DACA” or “WORST PRESIDENT EVER.” And you wondered, who the heck put that up there? Here’s where Patrick Randall takes a bow. That’s the pseudonym of the Southern California man who also calls himself the Freeway Blogger. [It’s also a tweak on the name of the heroically doomed mental institution patient Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” ]
Since the year 2000, with considerable time off during the Obama administration, Randall has managed to affix hundreds of his messages above freeways throughout California and beyond. He knows that you might not like what he has to say, or where he says it, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s a road warrior for the 1st Amendment.
This mode of communication, putting up signs on freeways — how did you come up with the idea? Was your inspiration the medium, or the message?
Originally it was the message. Originally it was Bush v. Gore, the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, which to me was essentially a stolen election. You knew there were no rules any more, and I could essentially speak out as loud as I wanted about this one.
Your first sign was what and where?
It was “1776-2000, R.I.P.,” and it was actually spray-painted on a mattress that I leaned up against a palm tree and then saw was still leaning there the next day, which struck me because at least 7,000 or 8,000 cars had passed by, any one of whom could have just pulled over, walked 20 feet and knocked the thing over.
And that’s when I realized how it had stayed up: Everyone passed by thinking the next guy would take care of it. Once I had that little epiphany, I realized there’s some power in this.
I read that law enforcement has to catch you doing this before it can do something to you. Is this an infraction? Is it a misdemeanor?
I believe it’s technically a misdemeanor, but the paradox is if I was ever taken to court, the 1st Amendment generally wins out over these things. The problem is, in order to put a sign [legally] on the freeway, you need to get permission — that’s the rule. Once you get permission, it’s no longer free speech; it’s literally state-sanctioned speech.
So I operate kind of within that paradox. The process goes like this: I am a person walking with a piece of folded cardboard. I kneel for a moment and for about three or four seconds, I’m a person putting up a sign.
Is that all it takes? Really?
You put the cardboard against the fence, you strap a bungee cord or two behind it, maybe a bit of duct tape on one of the corners, and then you walk away. So that’s why I’m able to do it as prolifically as I have.
You know, I’ve been caught by police red-handed maybe 12 times. And each time it went like this: “Did you put that sign there?” “Yes, I did.” “You mind taking it down?“ “No sir, I don’t.” And that’s the end of it. I even get to keep the sign. And they know perfectly well I’m going to put it up down the street.
Do you have a schedule, or do you just wait until an idea and a phrase strike you?
After Bush v. Gore, I put up about six or seven signs. But then came the Iraq War. And once the — what would you call them? — the excuses for that war started to fall apart, is when I realized I’ve got to start talking again.
And the phrase “Nobody died when Clinton lied” came to me after reading Joe Wilson’s letter about the yellowcake uranium. [Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s New York Times op-ed cast doubt on the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had bought yellowcake uranium for weapons purposes.] Because for about two years, we all heard about how Clinton lied and he lied and he lied about a very insignificant thing.
I want to see how many people I can reach with the least amount of energy expended on my side. There’s a certain amount of Zen to it.
— Patrick Randall
Well, this is a war, and apparently Bush lied about that. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, the way one would, and it just said, editor, nobody died when Clinton lied. And when they didn’t publish it, I said, OK, I know how to do this. I’ll publish it myself.
And I started putting that phrase on signs all over the Southland, and then I got to watch it rise on Google. I got to watch it go from 17 hits to 100 to 1000 to 17,000, and then it came out on bumper stickers and t-shirts. And I thought, my God, I did it. I inserted a meme into society directly through the freeways.
Your range is California and the western United States?
I stick to big cities. That’s just where it works. When you’re out in more rural areas people are not as trapped in their cars. In cities you’ve got an absolutely captive audience.
Well, you do have it down to a science. How big are the letters, and how big is the sign?
With long messages, obviously the letters have to be smaller. For example, I put one sign over the Santa Monica freeway recently that said, “It appears that our president is working on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Discuss.” Now, those letters were maybe eight to 10 inches tall, which is the minimum. But if you want a big, bold, graphic sign, I just put one up over the Hollywood freeway before coming here that said “Deport Racists.” And those letters can be two, three feet tall.
It’s all done with a projector, and the cardboard is whitewashed, so just a thin coat of white paint on cardboard and it’s a perfect canvas for this sort of thing.
You have imitators. People have started doing this around the country. Is this flattering?
Well, yes. It’s happening in woefully small numbers right now. But I believe that once people become more comfortable and, ironically, more frightened of what’s happening with their country, then you’ve got to reach a certain level of mad, I guess.
It doesn’t take much to talk yourself out of doing something that you don’t get paid for, and that you’ve never done before. The baseline has to be that you have to think that it makes a difference. I’ve put up hundreds of signs that just said “Osama Bin Forgotten” during the Iraq War.
And I don’t know if that made a difference. But it made me feel good. It made me feel like I was doing something for my country. I am promoting this kind of free speech; I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. I can literally reach a half-million people for a nickel. And that’s a fairly powerful medium.
What about the driver who agrees with your message but is ticked off at the distraction? Because he slows down for a fraction of a second; the woman behind him slows down for a fraction of a second….
And driver distraction would be the one charge that could be leveled against what I do. But so long as you’re going to have jumbotron screens next to the 405 that are flashing and changing their message every 10 seconds, so long as you’re going to have billboards, I’m going to stick with what I’m doing until you take those things down.
And what I do is practically sanctified by the 1st Amendment. The people who gave us the 1st Amendment did it for a reason, and it was precisely so people like me could do what I’m doing.
Are you itching to go to court over this? It sounds like you are maybe spoiling for a 1st Amendment fight that you think you could win.
It would be like having the Chicago Seven in one guy! I don’t think they’re ever going to take me to court over this.
Your politics — how do you characterize them?
Oh, just to the left of, say, Che Guevara!
Oh my! There must be, then, places where you parted company with the Obama administration, or the Clinton administration.
Oh no. I’m a pragmatist. I went to sleep for the Obama years. I worked my little tail off during the Bush years and then, like a lot of us, we just let that [Obama] fellow take care of things.
We could go weeks without thinking about the president. It was wonderful. And it was a mistake on our part because he really did need our help, and I don’t think it’s a mistake we’ll be making again. At least I hope not.
Is President Trump almost too rich a target?
Certainly you’ve got to get the signs up quick, because he’s going to do something else tomorrow, you know. I still have some “SAVE DACA” signs in my trunk that I didn’t get up in time because DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] got saved, temporarily.
Is this a solo undertaking?
I have literally thousands of volunteers. However, when you volunteer for something on the internet, that’s just clicking a button, you know. In terms of actually picking up a paintbrush, maybe I’ve got a dozen on the West Coast. A guy in Indianapolis just started in. There’s someone in Atlanta.
Frankly all I’d need is about 25 guys working every day and I could change the political landscape of the country. If you want people in Chicago to think of Darfur, I can make that happen in an afternoon. I just drive to Chicago, paint “Darfur” 10 times, put them on 10 different freeways, and by the end of the day you’ll have a million people that you didn’t have before thinking about Darfur.
One sign I saw was “We’re all wearing the blue dress now,” meaning … ?
That was another experiment where, if the sign is cryptic enough, the person isn’t going to get it until they’re at least a mile or two from where they saw it. And in that case, that was a polite way of saying that what Clinton did to the intern, Bush was doing to the country, if that makes any sense
That’s very delicately put.
The crown jewel of posting this kind of message has to be the Hollywood sign, which has had “Hollyweed” put there, and “Hollyweird” and “Raffeysod,” which nobody understands to this day. Caltech put up something years ago too. Do you have aspirations to the Hollywood sign?
Why is that?
Because I’m just going for numbers. I want to see how many people I can reach with the least amount of energy expended on my side. There’s a certain amount of Zen to it, where you want to get the greatest effect to the least amount of energy spent.
And the Hollywood sign, that’s just — I’ll leave that to other people.
MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.