Dear LAist: What's Up With All Those KOOK Signs?
WE'RE ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS ABOUT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THAT KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT. IF YOU HAVE ONE, ASK IT HERE.
If you've lived in L.A. long enough, especially if you frequent neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Echo Park or Highland Park, you've probably seen the letters K-O-O-K mounted on a telephone pole somewhere during the course of your daily trials and tribulations.
The signs have become so ubiquitous around town that they're almost unnoticeable, blending into the sometimes unsanitary, urban fabric of L.A. — electrical lines, street furniture, lost dog fliers, graffiti and hanging shoes that we see everyday, but might not actually clock as particularly new or interesting.
The KOOK signs in particular have flown pretty under-the-radar, compared to bigger, more high-profile street art (we're looking at you, Shepard Fairey). Aside from one Reddit post, a Google search won't get you far in figuring out the KOOK artist's name or the message behind the word.
Which is probably why not one, but two LAist readers have asked us: "What's the deal with all the "KOOK" signs?"
Well, we have the answer, and it involves a lot of curse words. (For all the innocent children out there who read LAist, consider this your censored profanity warning.)
WHO'S THE KOOK?
We were able to get in touch with the man behind the signs through a trusted
stalking detective tool we like to call Instagram. Despite widespread local recognition, the KOOK Instagram profile @kook_street has fewer than 1,000 followers and no clear link to a human person with a real human name. The profile description simply says, "Stay KOOKy my friends." It could've easily been a fan page or a spam account.
When I commented on a photo to ask for an interview, I got this response: "Nice try, Officer!"
Eventually, I got Mr. Kook on the phone. It turns out his real name is David Buckingham and he's no Banksy. He's not anonymous. He's not even semi-anonymous. He's just a 60-year-old guy who loves to curse and make weird jokes.
Buckingham is a total eccentric by his own admission. Hence the word "kook" (but more on that later). And he's got the voice of a snarky, cartoon character — a quick YouTube rabbit hole led me to the conclusion that he sounds a little like Bender from Futurama with the general tone of Family Guy's Brian (the dog).
He's a metal sculptor by trade with a studio downtown. That's why the KOOK letters are made with hand-cut metal from cars, trucks or hay bales that he collects from scrap yards in places like Bakersfield and Delano, or as he says, "Any s———- town with junk... You don't find any scrap metal in Palm Springs (too neat)."
But before the art career, Buckingham had a long and sordid past. He spent 20 years as a creative director, was born in New Orleans, lived in Australia, and ended up in L.A. when he "got busted for heroin and ended up in jail here and never left."
The reason for the jail time? Possession, he said. Twice.
After that, he said he ended up on Skid Row, living out of a suitcase in a flop house. "I've already been rehabbed 15 times. It wasn't my first time on heroin, that's for sure," adding a Krusty-the-Clown-esque laugh.
When I asked him how he finally got clean, he said, "I'm just too old for that s—-... Plus, I'm a sculptor. I can't afford it."
He said he met a girl at an outpatient program, who invited him to weld in her L.A. backyard, and he's been making art from reclaimed metal ever since.
Now, Buckingham runs his own studio in DTLA and works full time as an artist. The KOOK signs are just a hobby or an unpaid side-hustle, if you will.
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WHAT THE KOOK?
Buckingham said he wanted to do something in the streets for years, but he had a problem.
"I'm not a spray paint guy, not a wheat paste guy, not a sticker guy," he said,
"So I was in my studio trying to figure out what to do, and I'm looking at my floor. I got hundreds of metal letters lying on the floor leftover from pieces, I'm like 'I'll put these letters on a telephone pole."
But had no idea what those letters should say, until it hit him.
"What about KOOK? People have been calling me a kook all my life. That was the entire genesis of it. Kook. F—- it, let's put these up."
Buckingham started bolting the letters to telephone poles around his neighborhood in Mount Washington around 2011, and that was that. He estimates he's installed at least 150 of them around Los Angeles and 100 in New Orleans, but he doesn't keep count or geotag them in any official way.
"I usually map the first two, and then I'm like f—- it, I'm on a mission here, I don't have time to write it down."
Buckingham said there's no political agenda or hidden message to the word. He just likes it.
"There's another great thing about KOOK, it's a palindrome," he said. "And it's got the funniest letter in the English language which is K, in my opinion. It has two K's. How can you lose? It's also like the Beatles song."
The Beatles song he's referring to is "I Am The Walrus," and the lyrics are apparently written "Goo Goo g'joob" with a G, not Kookookachoo with a K, but that's neither here nor there.
"It's short. It's sweet. It's punchy. It's friendly. I just want to put a smile on people's faces," he explained.
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Sometimes when Buckingham is in a a "s——- mood," he drives by one of his own signs and sees the word KOOK, and it instantly cheers him up. The sightings are often a surprise because he does the installations late at night and usually doesn't remember where they are, probably because he's smoking weed.
Today when I gave him a follow up call, he told me "I meant to go out and put some KOOKS up last night, but I smoked a bunch of weed and watched a hockey game and ate a steak instead."
WAIT, WHAT DOES KOOK MEAN THOUGH?
When I asked Buckingham why people have called him KOOK all his life, he said "ADHD out the A-S-S. That's what my ex-wife used to say to me."
He describes himself as "rambunctious, reckless and impulsive... you know, dark side lover. That kind of s—-."
When you actually look up the word "kook," most definitions classify it as a surfer term. But Buckingham said he never knew that when he picked it as his muse.
"When the muse bites, the muse sinks her smoky fangs into your neck... you gotta go with it."
Buckingham has his own definition.
"Where I'm from, a kook is somebody who's left of center, perhaps you know, marches to the beat of their own drum. Maybe a person like myself. I used to describe my brain as being tuned to five different stations at the same time, each at full volume. That's what it's like inside my head all day. So by kook I mean somebody who is a little eccentric, a little different. Not malicious, not bad. Not you know, evil or anything. Just a little kooky."
OK, SO WHAT?
Buckingham might be a little crass, but he truly loves putting these signs all over the city. One night, he said he went on a rampage and bolted up 24 of them, running around town, climbing ladders until dawn.
"I've had the best time late at night. There's nobody out. It's just coyotes and bums. You can run red lights. You can park in red zones. You can do Glendale Boulevard in five minutes. I f——— love it. I can't wait to get to work. I'm gonna keep doing it until I can't."
You can feel however you want about the signmaker, but there's something freeing about just going out and putting up a random word over and over again just because.
The signs aren't designed to be controversial or political or particularly artistic. Buckingham's just a kooky guy who likes the letter K.
And the signs actually do give some people (besides himself) joy, he says.
A woman once came to visit Buckingham at his studio because she was a fan of his work. She told him that she'd been going through a rough time in her life when she passed by one of his signs. "She said 'when my husband picked me up after my mental breakdown I saw my first KOOK and I felt myself smile for the first time in months," Buckingham said. "Then I found myself driving around looking for them."
Buckingham says she pulled out her phone, which had hundreds of KOOK photos on it.
"And she goes 'before I got depressed and had my breakdown, I used to make a lot of things. And I stopped doing that, but now I'm making things again." he said. "Then she said 'I hope you'll accept this' and she handed me a gift. I opened it up and saw that she made me a felt KOOK," he said. "It's the coolest f——— thing you've ever seen."
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Buckingham's age as 61-years-old. His response was "I'm only 60!! WTF! LOL!" LAist has given him our apologies and corrected the error.
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