Shotgun graffiti

Milo Shumpert Appel, Staff

Someone rides in the passenger seat of a lifted pickup truck with a beer in his lap, cigarette between his teeth and a shotgun in his hands. His best friend, in the driver’s seat, tears around each corner on the rural back roads of Humboldt County. And then, around the next corner, stands the thin, metal road sign he’s been anticipating. The window is down, he has no seat belt on and he loses his cigarette while hanging out the window and taking aim.

Boom! The gun kicks back as the echo rings out through the forest and a splattering of hot lead tears through the deer-shaped silhouette on the yellow diamond sign.

Other people take a less militant approach to defacing public road signs. Some vandalize them with spray-paint, markers, lipstick and paintball guns, while others throw bottles and cans at them, cut them down to take home or even deliberately run into them with their vehicles.

Caltrans public representative Julie East said people have even shot arrows into road signs.

These folks use handguns, shotguns and rifles. It’s something people do when they’re angry, drunk or just want to have some fun. One could compare it to the more urban trend of spray-painting graffiti onto walls and billboards.

Donovan Clark, art teacher at Arcata Arts Institute at Arcata High School and former graffiti artist, disagrees.

“I don’t think shooting a road sign is art,” Clark said. “The intent behind the action is not to be creative, but to have fun and do damage.”

When a witness to sign-shooting described games that people played, I came to agree.

Planning out a design to paint in a dark and shady alleyway can be considered an art project. Shooting the number “0” on a road sign and counting up from there takes more the form of a sport. And of course there are risks.

California Highway Patrol officer Paul Dahlen said that deliberate destruction of road signs is punishable by loss of a driver’s license, two years’ incarceration, and almost $300 in fines. The problem, he said, is that it is very difficult to prosecute anyone because they basically have to be caught in the act, and most sign-shooting goes on in isolated, rural areas. The crimes, technically vandalism, go unpunished and taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

Caltrans spends $62,000 a year in Humboldt County alone repairing “miscellaneous” road sign damage. East said that they don’t keep more specific records, but she feels confident asserting that vandalism accounts for a majority of those signs that need replacing. That money, she said, could be used for other repairs, painting or sweeping the highways.

On rural back roads not associated with highways or cities, the county has replaced some 250 road signs in the past two years. Sixty of those signs were replaced because of vandalism, and the average cost of each sign was $75. Caltrans could not say how many of those vandalized road signs were riddled with gunshots, but next time you’re on a winding back road in the woods of Northern California, pay attention to how many passing signs are damaged beyond repair and ask yourself how many were destroyed with anything other than a hail of gunfire.

I met a young man who sounded proud to have shot road signs since he was old enough to hold a gun. He insisted he was a responsible and otherwise lawful person who works hard all week and likes to have his fun. For those who would judge him, he asked, “What do you do when you get drunk?”

He felt so strongly about this that he insisted I use his full name for this article, after I told him it wouldn’t be necessary and in fact would probably get him into trouble. He told me his name anyway, probably as a result of the box of Coors Light he’d just demolished, and I very deliberately forgot it. What I remembered, however, was what kind of person goes out shooting up road signs. That person is a friendly, hard-working and honest person who loves every second of being alive and is proud to be himself whether you like it or not.

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