Return of the Billboard Bandits
1:29 PM PDT on June 16, 2014
In the mid 2000's in Los Angeles, the city skies were full of outlaw art in the form of billboard takeovers from graffiti vandals. Writers like Versuz, Augor, Fucte and many more hit billboard in all corners of the city, sometimes straight jacking the spot from the corporate advertiser, sometimes embellishing the existing advertising art and, in some people's minds, improving it. At the end of the decade, things slowed down as the billboard companies used law enforcement and better protection to keep their real estate secure. The cap came when Banksy "vandalized" a billboard as part of a stunt to promote his film at the Oscars in 2011, and two corporations fought over the valuable piece of vinyl turned art. Billboard vandalism seemed done in Los Angeles.
At what seemed like the end of an era, a book appeared: Billboard Bandits: Outlaw Artists in the Sky which went from Kickstarter to best-seller on Amazon. The full-color book memorialized and explained the wave of graffiti on billboards in Los Angeles, showing the history that came before the explosion of 2000's bombing, and discussed all the major writers, crews, and movements while wondering what would come next.
The new age is now. Out of nowhere, Los Angeles is again hit by wave after wave of vandalised billboards. New writers, and the legends that inspired them, are back up, getting high on the corporate ladder and adding their names to films and consumer products on massive pieces of vinyl in the sky. To understand more about the phenomenon and its roots, I spoke with the author of Billboard Bandits, Adam Clark, who has been documenting this type of graffiti since the turn of the century. I also spoke with a billboard company executive (who asked not to be named) about things from the other side of the ledger. Lastly, I tracked down mysterious photographer AC_IN_CA, who takes some of the most stunning photos of graffiti anywhere, and asked her to share some of her favorite images of the new explosion in billboard banditry. First, let's discuss some history with Adam...
LA TACO: When did graffiti artists in LA first start getting down on billboards?
ADAM CLARK: While researching for Billboard Bandits, I came across traces of billboard bombing in Los Angeles dating back to the late 1980s. The KGB crew had a few commissioned Kiss FM billboards in 1987 that will be featured in the next release.
As far as true bombing in the city, AM7 crew led by Yem paved the way for the billboard bandits of today. Back in the early- to mid-1980s, Yem went by Krenz and repped K2S. By the later half of the decade he was in and out of an East coast crew and ready to start his own, AM7. The Angels of Madness had a knack for bombing billboards, or “corporates,” as they were referred to back then. By the early 1990s, the AM7 mission was to hit the craziest spots and those were billboards.
LAT: Who were the original "billboard bandits" who really took things to the next level in the mid 2000s?
Adam: In order to fully understand the mission of the “billboard bandits” of the mid-2000s, I had to first study their predecessors. The Los Angeles bombing scene from the mid-1990s to the 2000s was one of the most influential eras for graffiti writers to date. The Los Angeles style and work ethic from this generation has crossed international borders and altered the landscape of graffiti bombing worldwide.
The crews that really pushed the limit in those years were MSK, YR, KOG and LTS. Billboards, rooftops, streetside burners – it didn’t matter what was hit; it was always top notch. Names like Ayer (RIP), Jrock, Retna, Zeser, Use and Ozie raised the bar to make rocking multicolor bombs and wildstyle pieces on crazy spots the norm.
In 2003, Pysa hit the LTS Pirates’ of the Caribbean billboard, which set a benchmark for what could and should be done when bombing billboards. Not long after that, a new group of “billboard bandits” appeared on the scene and took Los Angles by storm. The NCT crew, meaning Nightmares Come True started hitting back-to-back billboards, sometimes even hitting every one at an intersection. Sex, Ease, and Actr led the surge along with Augor who was in RVS back then. The RVS crew is one of the lesser-known yet highly influential crews of the early 2000s. Fist, Beter, The One, Digital, Neko and Augor were all hardcore killers but not all of them get the credit they deserve.
During the mid-2000s, Augor was from CBS and he got a good number of their members out on billboards - Spe, Sram and Skegs just to name a few. Some other billboard bombers during that era were Fuct, Pharoe, Naut, Char, Yoink, Pabst and Topl.
Sufer from MTA was one of the biggest bombers of that time. He and Apear hit the “Capitol Records” billboard multiple times. The blocks that they did on the back of that billboard will go down as one of the most monumental hits Los Angeles has seen.
By the end of the 2000s, Augor got into MSK and hit the “There Will Be Blood” billboard with Tastes Like Gold. The billboard was featured on Fox 11 news and proved to be an inspiration for graffiti bombers for the rest of the decade.
LAT: It seems like, for a while there, things were quiet on the billboard front. What happened?
Adam: The billboard front did quiet down near the end of the first decade of the 2000s. That can be attributed to a multitude of things. The stiff penalties faced by writers like Sight and the media frenzy around the arrest of Revok were definitely contributing factors. I also feel like the city has seen cycles of bombing and for a while it was silent.
LAT: What do you think is driving this next wave of billboard banditry? Who are the big names in billboard takeovers right now?
Adam: I believe this current wave of “billboard banditry” is a result of the bombing cycle approaching its crest. The generation out bombing now has been on the rise the past few years and has recently taken their craft to new heights, literally and figuratively. Many of the writers out today were young and impressionable during the previous waves of billboard bombing. When asked about their influences I am certain they would site the generation before them and before that.
A couple of names that I have seen out killing it are Buge and Crabs from BAMC. They have been dropping burners on ads, manipulating the background almost every time. 57er and the KRS guys have been handling a bunch as well as Saut from PM. If you are looking for some straight up bombing, look no further than Bozoe or Drake. They both keep it classic and have the work ethic to last. In addition to them, the KOG crew has never stopped, with Agod and Versuz leading their billboard assault.
LAT: Is there anything different between the wave of billboard pieces now and what we saw in the last wave?
Adam: The only main difference I see in the bombers of today and the bombers of the previous years is advertisement selection. The current generation has been paying extra attention to blending their work in with the billboard ad. The previous eras were all about getting up with the ad selection being slightly less important.
LAT: Where does Banksy's Oscar-season billboard stunt play into the whole ecosystem of billboard takeovers and how the public sees them?
Adam: Banksy’s Oscar season billboard stunt aided the acceptance of street art and graffiti by the public, especially billboard graffiti. With Exit Through the Gift Shop being nominated for an Oscar and the public eager for some authentic Banksy action, he took to the streets for a small campaign during the Academy Awards season. Some people dislike Banksy’s work for various reasons but it can’t be denied that he has opened the public’s eye to street art and billboard manipulations.
SOME in the public clearly enjoy the graffiti on billboards and consider it to be an art form in and of itself. Look no further than Instagram for proof-- every day in my feed I see a shot of a billboard (or billie as they are known by some) that has been hit by one or more of the writers on the current scene. How does this affect the billboard advertising companies? A few people I spoke to floated the theory that at least some billboard takeovers have been officially sanctioned, like Banksy's in 2011, but there is no evidence to support this. It could be said that people won't instagram a Transformers billboard on its own, but once it's covered in graffiti it will be shared by dozens and "liked" by thousands, but this ignores the costs on the side of the billboard companies to remove and replace the ads that are vandalized.
In fact, according to an executive at a major billboard company I spoke to, this is "a very big problem. I would estimate this costs the industry in exess of several million dollars per year in money wasted to fix the vandalism... The billboard company has to pay to replace the vinyl and/or pay to paint over any vandalism to the structure. We also have to pay for the removal and re-installation. There's also the loss of advertising time. The costs of even mild graffiti almost always exceed $1000." When asked what the companies are going to do about it, the executive was tight-lipped, only saying that the industry isn't going to sit by and keep losing money.
Given the size of the problem, it seems likely that the billboard companies, which in the case of CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel, are owned by some of the world's largest media corporations, will take action, either using law enforcement like the last time, or by using their resources to protect their property more aggressively. Is this current wave cresting, or will a new generation be inspired by this current crop of billboard bandits? One thing is for sure, Adam Clark has confirmed that he's working on Billboard Bandits II.
Some of the best images I've ever seen of billboard takeovers are by the reclusive AC_IN_CA, a photographer who manages to come up with amazing images of all kinds, but especially billboards slathered in colorful graffiti and lit by the powerful lights used to attract drivers' eyes as they speed down our city streets. A gallery of her images of the freshest and most epic billboard vandalism is presented to you below, containing the work of writers like Saute, Buge, Augor, Crabs, and others...
ALL IMAGES BY AC_IN_CA. View more on Instagram..
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