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Billboards around Los Angeles have been called many names during the past several years — a blight, a crime, a dangerous distraction for drivers. There are a few other names for them, though: history and art.
On Tuesday night, the City of West Hollywood’s annual Historic Preservation Celebration paid homage to the billboards of the Sunset Strip.
“It may seem strange that we’re honoring billboards – advertising art – at a preservation event,” said Gail Ostergren, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission. “We think of historical preservation as things that are long-lived, whereas billboards are commercial and inherently ephemeral. But when you ask people what they think of when they think of the Sunset Strip, you get two answers: nightlife and billboards. The pictures and the ads constantly change, but the billboards themselves are fixtures.”
“We used to be called the Cultural Heritage Commission,” said Bruce Kaye, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. “Part of our mandate is to preserve culture. Even though billboards are meant to be very temporary, there are certain billboards that live on in people’s minds. It’s part of the culture we don’t look at fondly now, but for a generation, it was defining.”
Photographer Robert Landau first began documenting the billboards on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, when, he said, most of them were hand-painted. Between Woodstock, in 1969, and the dawn of music videos in 1981, Landau said billboards enjoyed a “golden age” whose pinnacle was seen on the Sunset Strip, where the billboards documented a specific moment in music and culture.
“For record companies, the billboards and the Strip seemed like a match made in heaven,” Landau said. “Never mind that it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense economically to spend a great deal of money on signs that are up for a few weeks and then disappear. The billboards were only reaching a small segment of the market, but it felt like the right segment. The Strip was ground zero for a large youthful population that had money and was only too eager to embrace new artists.”
Landau said that as new artists were breaking new ground musically, the billboards also began to evolve, with iconic images appearing without any ad copy.
“All trends of art eventually filtered through billboard design,” Landau said.
Famous pop artists like Andy Warhol designed billboards for the Sunset Strip, and soon companies began to run “sequential campaigns,” which involved renting a single billboard for an extended period of time, and slowly altering or replacing the original message. For instance, before the release of Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall”, a billboard showing a plain brick wall went up, and the bricks were slowly chipped away to reveal an image underneath.
“The sequential campaigns assumed the same viewer would pass the same billboard multiple times to get the full message, which created a time lapse conversation between the board and the viewer,” Landau said.
Viewers also engaged in dialogue with the billboards through graffiti.
“Sunset Strip billboards were not often defaced for the hell of it with random graffiti,” Landau said. “But they often did evoke strong reactions, and people felt compelled to respond.”
After the Beatles broke up, John Lennon put up a billboard that read “John Lennon is Available.” At the bottom, someone added, “So is Yoko Ono,” in black spray paint.
Once, in 1977, a billboard lay fallow snd whitewashed for more than a couple of days, and someone sprayed on the question, “Can this be art?”
“Of course! Why not?” Landau said. “Anything can be art if an artist does it. Billboards are a medium, and can be used in many ways.”
According to Landau, the golden age of Sunset Strip billboards came to an end with the rise of MTV, which gave record companies a new medium in which to visually market music.
However, the Strip has remained home to some of the city’s most iconic billboards. The West Hollywood City Council agreed to allow digital billboards and supergraphics on the Strip, but not anywhere else in the city.
Even Dennis Hathaway, author of the BanBillboardBlight blog, said he doesn’t mind the huge 21st century advertisements on the strip.
“It’s kind of historic,” Hathaway said. “It’s like Times Square. They’re legally permitted, and that’s fine. My main issue is proliferation. A couple months ago, the city had a proposal to allow supergraphic signs outside the Sunset Strip for the first time, and I think that’s a bad idea, because they won’t be able to stop it once it starts. It just turns buildings into advertisements.”
Though the billboards are no longer hand-painted, Landau said he still thought they could serve an artistic function, even the digital signs.
“Do not fear the billboards,” he said. “They are, after all, just big pictures.”
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