Signs and Portents

Toward the end of my usual walk in Venice, I was confronted by a graffitied warning, on Hampton Drive: GET CAUGHT STEALING IN VENICE AND YOU WILL PAY! There’s a rash of garage break-ins and bike thefts, but it seems unlikely that an aggrieved landlord or homeowner would spray paint his own retaining wall. Who tagged this wall? Why?

Now, alert to the day’s omens, I find them. The first few are so commonplace they would otherwise be invisible. The first, NO TRESPASSING, appears with skull and crossbones on a gate. A lone surviving ornament of last year’s Halloween?


Then: NO SMOKING WITHIN 15 FEET, on a former church that’s up for sale. Superimposed over a smoldering cigarette, an interdictory circle. Superimposed over the circle, a heart. Superimposed over the heart, a lightning bolt.  Signs upon signs.

I make a left on Rose. Here is DUMPING – DRAINS TO OCEAN. LAMC 64.70.

Then, affixed to every lamp post, this: AN AREA CLEANING WILL COMMENCE … PLEASE REMOVE ALL BELONGINGS, clearly aimed at homeless encampments and  accompanied with paragraphs detailing the disposition of properties collected during the operation.

Now come the inexplicable: signage which means something to its maker but nothing to the maker’s neighbor. Chalked onto a sidewalk abutting a shade tree: DANGER EPSTEIN ISLAND:

Pasted to a street sign, a cryptic SCOUT OUT NOW:

A block later, carefully stenciled onto the sidewalk: SEEKING APPLAUSE YOUR DIGITAL MIRAGE and FUCK YOUR PHONE KEEP YOUR HEAD UP:

Finally, just before Lincoln Boulevard, a stray length of knotted police tape at the foot of a power pole, the last witness to a crime scene. It reads, simply, CAUTION:

This effusion of signage reminds me of comic book speech-balloons, with this difference: in Venice, the superheroes have left the scene, leaving their orphaned thoughts behind. These thought-bubbles are a a kind of litter, labeling every surface with our collective anxieties: fear of crime and disease, contempt for the careless or crass, rage at unfriendly neighbors.

Unlike litter, these speech-balloons are not passive. They are predatory. They hunger for our assent, for our participation in their fear and our submission to their neurotic authority, whether they rely for that authority upon municipal codes or upon voices so loud (all are in caps) that they drown out dissent.

Their messages are too diverse for any particular politics. Yet they do work in concert, asserting that it’s not safe to be out walking. Take them to heart, and we’ll shut ourselves behind our doors, becoming fearful and furtive.

They want us off the street. I want something else.

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