Los Angeles Swaps 21 Billboards With Art

A new large-scale exhibition by the MAK Center turns L.A.’s ubiquitous billboards into public artworks.

Kerry Tribe

Work by Kerry Tribe; photo by Gerard Smulevich, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art & Architecture


From the hundred-foot supergraphics that coat historic buildings like Christo sculptures to the garish digital screens that cast a sickly glow over once-dark neighborhoods, Los Angeles seems to be losing a battle with ugly billboards. So the timing of a new large-scale urban installation that replaces mega-ads for McDonald’s Mac Snack Wraps with works of mega-art by Kerry Tribe (above) couldn’t be better.

Kenneth Anger

Work by Kenneth Anger; photo by Gerard Smulevich, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art & Architecture

At least five years in the making, How Many Billboards? Art In Stead was organized by the MAK Center (who also co-operates the Schindler House in West Hollywood). When Kimberli Meyer was appointed its director in 2002, she began the arduous process of raising enough money to swap sweating Bud Light bottles with the sharp wordplay of Kenneth Anger (above). The break came when she met Rick Robinson, who works for MacDonald Media and negotiated on the MAK Center’s behalf with behemoths like Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, and Van Wagner. In fact, the show capitalized on the fact that ad sales for the billboards were down, said Meyer last night on a preview ride. “This could never have happened three years ago.”

David Lamelas

Work by David Lamelas; photo by Gerard Smulevich, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art & Architecture

21 billboards will be up by the end of the week, covering a wide area from Beverly Hills to MacArthur Park, Sunset Boulevard to the 10 freeway, and almost every major thoroughfare in between. On last night’s preview ride, a group of about 25 people were able to easily see seven in two hours–including two back-to-back works by David Lamelas and Yvonne Rainer that both played upon the concept of “good.” Lamelas’ piece (above) is part of his “aging rocker” series and features himself as a young punk. Rainer’s piece (below) uses a quote attributed to Marlene Dietrich in her 80’s and seems to respond appropriately to Lamelas’ image.

Yvonne Ranier

Work by Yvonne Rainer; photo by Gerard Smulevich, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art & Architecture


But embarking upon a large-scale treasure hunt for art billboards had unintended consequences for the group, who began analyzing the graphics of the other ads, like the weight-control device Oband, as well. “You definitely become more aware of the other billboards,” Meyer acknowledged. “And you start to realize how many there really are.”

Most of the ads will be up through March–unless, of course, a still-sagging economy prevents them from being swapped on schedule; everyone on the bus acknowledged they’d seen ads sticking around Los Angeles for movies that had long since left theaters. Bus and bike tours organized by the MAK Center will begin next weekend, and a map of all the billboards also allows hardy urban explorers to locate the billboards on their own.

[How Many Billboards]

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato