How the Hand Painted Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip Came to Be

Photo by Weho City, Flickr Rock N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip Exhibit Reception - July 30, 2013

Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.

According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.

Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.

Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:

Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?

Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.

The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.

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