Billboard markets ideas not materials

Traffic. Even as the source of many Angelenos’ collective frustration, it surprisingly provides the only time we get to sit in one place.

And when we get stuck bumper-to-bumper, we try to find other modes of entertainment. If we simply sit in the car and let our eyes roam, they will undoubtedly fall on the towering visual signs dotting the streets: billboards. From movies to fast food to clothing stores, these eye-catching giants try to convince us to dole out money or switch on the TV.

But what if the billboard did something different? What if it made us stop and look closely without asking anything in return?

The street artist Uglar has answered with “Fly Vs. Elephant.”

But first, some background: Two years ago, Daniel Lahoda initiated the LA Freewalls project, a large-scale effort to bring more murals to the city streets. To bring that movement to the gallery scene, he also opened LALA Arts, which hosted two shows featuring works from street artists like Shepard Fairey, RISK, Zes and Uglar.

Public Works, the newest LALA project, undertakes a large and significant effort — repurposing the space of billboards and switching advertisements for art. The hand-painted and printed murals went up thanks to a partnership with MacDonald Media, which focuses on media that is “out-of-home,” according to their website.

What’s more, the billboards tend to show off the best of many street artists’ talent. Their works, unlike what we typically see, are entirely separated from promotion. Uglar’s work on Rampart Boulevard and Third Street especially brings issues of art versus commerce to light. An otherwise blank background features a giant fly head-to-head with an elephant. Though at first glance it’s comical or confusing, the piece serves as a testimony to the power of contemporary art.

Only in a visual work of this size can the enormity of the fictional fly come through. Only in art can such a small animal be rendered to a giant size with such detail. And only in this work will a fly and an elephant clash with each other in some unknown battle.

Public Works itself takes on a battle — adjusting the viewer’s eyes from routine advertisements to the complex artwork. The project also speaks to the power of street art — you don’t have to walk into a gallery, you don’t have to know the artist’s name. If a piece speaks to you, it does so automatically and perhaps when you least expect it to do so.

Uglar’s work stands close to a dentist office and across from other entirely normal businesses. A casual driver would find nothing remarkable about the intersection. Now, both visitors and longtime residents have something more to see. The work breaks up the monotony of normal travel with a visual treat that doesn’t require viewers to spend  money.

Street artists generally make art more communal and accessible, a characteristic  that Uglar’s work displays. In the street art world, anyone with a vision and the talent can use the streets as a canvas, but Uglar’s piece shows both finesse and a quirky vision bound to catch the attention of more than one passerby. It’s the same concept as an artist putting up a sticker, wheatpaste or poster on a concrete wall; Public Works just takes the idea to a larger and more powerful scale. Whether or not viewers approve of street art, the billboards will at least create a conversation about its importance.

Uglar’s work seems comical at first, but it offers a serious point: We need to use public space for more than advertisements. Our everyday visual culture should include art, not just symptoms of consumerism. It’s through art that we can explore our imagination, something that perhaps gets lost in the day-to-day commute.


Eva Recinos is a senior majoring in English. Her column “Two Cents A Piece” runs Tuesdays.

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