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Local Artists Claim Responsibility For 'Hollyweed' Sign Prank

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Angelenos woke up on New Year’s Day to find something amiss in the horizon: the famed Hollywood Sign had been altered to read “Hollyweed,” possibly in response to the recent passing of Prop 64, which made it legal to be in possession of certain amounts of marijuana.

On Tuesday, two local artists stepped forward to claim responsibility for the alteration. Zach Fernandez (who also goes by the monicker “Jesus Hands”) and Sarah Fern told Vice that they’d spent two hours (with additional pre-planning) to pull off their project. The act was a generalized life-affirming message, with Fernandez saying it was “about being and staying youthful and living in the purest form.”

It was also about weed, of course. The November election results were the "final push," and per Fernandez:

I’m very proactive about marijuana. The first time I smoked, I was like 12, and my sister and her boyfriend brought out a bong and got me super high. Then we had our own medical-marijuana-delivery service in San Luis Obispo for two years, but we got out of the business. Still, the medical results are clear for people with MS, cancer... It's just interesting to see where the conversation has gone to at this point.
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The act has led the Hollywood Sign Trust, which is tasked with preserving the sign, to review the measures they take in safeguarding the area. Chris Baumgart, chairman of the trust, told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday that the non-profit group will look into “deploying additional technology to tighten up surveillance.”

Betsy Isroelit, a spokesperson for the trust, told LAist that there are over 30 cameras installed in the area around the sign. The cameras, while funded by the trust, are operated by the LAPD. Additional security include fencing and a 24 hour guard station nearby. It is interesting, then, that the culprit(s) had somehow eluded detection. Before the Vice interview was published, Drake Madison, a public information officer with the LAPD, told LAist that there is footage of a person “dressed in black,” but he could not confirm if this footage was taken by one of the trust’s cameras. The LAPD had also yet to identify the person in said footage.

This isn’t the first time that the Hollywood sign has been tampered with. From the ’70s to the ‘90s, Daniel Finegood made a name for himself by tampering with the sign on numerous occasions. The first incident happened on January 1, 1976 (exactly 41 years before Sunday’s incident), with Finegood altering the sign to read, yes, “Hollyweed,” which was, yes, in response to the enactment of a more relaxed marijuana laws in California. At the time, Finegood was an art student at Cal State Northridge, and the stunt apparently earned him an "A" on a class assignment. Ten years later, Finegood would scale the hills once again to spell “Ollywood,” a protest of Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Oliver North as the Iran-Contra hearings were taking place. In 1991, Finegood emabrked on his final piece, turning the sign into “Oil War” as commentary on the Gulf War.

After his “Hollyweed” stunt, Finegood rebuked characterizations of him as a vandal. In a letter to the L.A. Times (which was certain he was a vandal), Finegood noted that he hadn’t caused any damage to the sign, adding that his goal as an artist was “to create representations of the culture he exists in” and that he was successful in changing "people's perception of the Hollywood Sign.” As for Sunday's incident, Madison told LAist that it was not considered an act of vandalism, as the sign wasn’t damaged; instead, the perpetrator had committed an act of trespassing.

Fernandez cites Finegood as a major inspiration for the project, and notes that his project was a direct form of homage to the original Hollyweed. The two artists had even added ”a tribute to Mr. Finegood" below the “O."

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“I saw the original ‘Hollyweed’ sign on my buddy's' Instagram and wondered if it was just a digital alteration,” Fernandez told Vice. “That inspired me, and I dug a bit and found he did some other installs over the years with friends.”

Aside from Finegood’s stunts, the sign has been altered on about 15 different occasions, a couple of which were officially permitted; in 2010, the sign was covered with a banner that read "Save the peak,” an effort by then-councilman Tom LaBonge and the Trust for Public Land to raise awareness about their efforts to prevent luxury housing from being built on a parcel of land just west of the sign. Before the latest "Hollyweed" incident, one of the final, unsanctioned alterations of the sign happened in 1993, when a bunch of UCLA students changed it to read “GO UCLA.” The stunt was thanks to members UCLA's chapter of the Theta Chi fraternity, who “wanted to inspire” their football team:

Security was beefed up after the "Go UCLA" incident. Isroelit notes that, since then, the pranks have largely died off, but Sunday’s event will give cause for the trust to review their security measures. “It’s a good time for everybody to step back and say ‘Are we doing everything we can?’ ‘Are there weak links in the system?’ What that could be, no one knows yet,” said Isroelit.

"This is more than preventing pranks or trespassing at the sign,” Baumgart told The Hollywood Reporter. “Our concern is the safety of the neighborhood and the trespassers that put themselves at risk because it is extremely unsafe to be on the sign.”

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LAist has reached out to Fernandez for a comment, but we have yet to hear back from him.