War In Iraq Turns L.A. Into Battleground For Street Artists

Protest posters, graffiti popping up in unprecedented numbers.

When Patrick, a 42-year-old self-employed father of two, heard that American casualties in Iraq had reached 1,000, he knew what he had to do. He was going to have to make more signs.

For the past two years, the Orange County, California, resident has hidden himself behind the moniker "Freeway Blogger," scouring the highways of Southern California, tagging interstate overpasses with simple black-on-white signs containing messages such as "The War Is A Lie," "Osama Bin Forgotten" and "Rumsfailed."

Patrick's response to 1,000 dead soldiers was a rush to put up 100 signs in a single night. He almost made it, but fatigue forced him to stop at 83. Still, the Freeway Blogger's exhaustion only meant more canvas for other public protest artists.

The 2004 election has been a boon for political street art around Los Angeles. Everyone, from graffiti writers and underground poster makers to design superstars such as Shepard Fairey and internationally respected artists like Robbie Conal, is taking their message to the streets.

Carol Wells, who has been archiving political public artwork at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles since 1989, said there's been such a flurry of activity, "I can't keep up."

The art explosion has also been noticed by such veterans as "Mear One," a 32-year-old graffiti painter who's been a staple of the Hollywood and East Los Angeles aerosol set for the better part of two decades. "A lot of pieces are going up — more than ever before. People are going off in full-color and posting Kinko's Xerox copies, companies are mirroring graffiti tactics by printing up stickers with political slogans. ... You can't escape from it."

Los Angeles may be the perfect location for this kind of rebel renaissance. In its miles of concrete-lined freeways, as well as the highway entrances and switch-light boxes that dot its automotive-minded landscape, L.A. has plenty of public surfaces for street artists to showcase their work on. And with its omnipresent traffic jams, it has a sizeable audience for those works as well.

Southern California's strong cultural ties to Mexico and that country's tradition of mural-making has also long been reflected in local graffiti. Not content to simply tag, graffiti writers have long drawn about "issues that affect them personally, whether it's the different propositions that have come up or the three-strikes law," said Mear. "Especially things that affect their ethnicity, their culture, their rights."

Longtime observers of political street art such as Wells and Conal, who at 60 is one of the godfathers of modern political art in the United States, say the Bush presidency has energized artists. "That Bush can activate the street, that he can get skateboard and graffiti kids pissed off enough to make art, that's amazing," Conal said.

This is equally true of independent firebrands like "Billy Nose," a 48-year-old South Central Los Angeles schoolteacher, who since January has been night-crawling through Venice and Santa Monica, putting up posters. Nose, whose paintings can be seen in various Los Angeles galleries, said he began putting up politically charged drawings on street corners because he felt the artistic community wasn't answering its ideological call. "There was a lot of bitching but nobody doing anything. I stopped waiting, went in the night, just did it and felt born again," he said.

Nose's first broadside, titled "Greed," was a caricature of Mickey Mouse, who "used to mean love and family, but is now the most perfect icon for greed I could think of," he explained. As the year has progressed, Nose's posters have been increasingly critical of the Bush administration's actions. One titled "Free Speech" was a caricature of FCC chief Michael Powell, while "Stop It America" presented the image of an Iraqi being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

Shepard Fairey, too, felt the need to act. The work of the 34-year-old graffiti artist/graphic designer, best known for his multitude of "Andre the Giant Has a Posse"/"Obey Giant" stickers and posters, rarely approached politics until the controversial election of 2000. But it was in March 2003, on the eve of the war in Iraq, that Fairey's art truly underwent a full-fledged political awakening.

This past May, Fairey teamed up with Conal and Mear One to create a triptych of anti-Bush posters under the name "Be the Revolution." Their late May tagging sessions, organized by the veteran Conal, placed more than 1,500 posters all over Los Angeles, kicking the political-street-art scene into overdrive.

Expectedly, many of the artists have suffered a backlash for their divisive art. Both the Freeway Blogger and Billy Nose have received death threats. And Fairey, a commercially successful artist, said his design business took a hit once he began mixing his art with his politics. "Four thousand e-mail subscribers, about 25 percent of my list, unsubscribed immediately," he said.

Yet despite such obstacles, each artist expressed joy at the ability to artistically voice their political opinions through civil disobedience. They also spoke of the rush — what Conal calls the "hee-hee factor" — of running around at night, being politically subversive.

On his night of 100 signs, the Freeway Blogger's truck was stopped at 3:30 a.m. by two Highway Patrol officers, who saw his cab filled with un-hung work. "I said, 'Oh, I was just going to put a sign on the back of this freeway overpass here.' They couldn't help it — they just cracked up. It's the middle of the night and here's this anti-war protester and two CHP guys. But I'm not hurting anything, I'm just trying to get a message out, so whether they agreed or not, they didn't question it and let me go. They were glad that I wasn't crazy."