Patrick Randall leans back in the driver's seat of his white Toyota pickup, which is filled with bungee cords, duct tape, and long sheets of cardboard. Randall (not his real name) has placed nearly 5,000 handmade signs featuring catchy political slogans like "Osama bin Forgotten" and "Nobody Died When Clinton Lied" along highways up and down the West Coast. For the last two years, the 45-year-old self-described "disaffected hippie" from the Bay Area has photographed and written about his travels on his website, freewayblogger.com. Randall, who was vague about how he pays for his life on the lam, has found his new calling after spending years smuggling clothing to poverty-stricken villages in Mexico for taketothehills.org and teaching English at San Diego State University. No stranger to politics and free speech, Randall even worked as a freelance political writer for Penthouse magazine in the '70s. "Keeping the masturbators of the world politically informed wasn't the most fulfilling thing," he chuckles.
Randall says he began making his signs after becoming disillusioned with the antiwar movement. "People make protest signs and they all go to the same place at the same time to hold them up for each other. That's dumb," he says. Several years ago, Randall attended what he describes as "a terrible piece of street theater," complete with weeping widow and a casket labeled "Democracy." Randall drove home, passing a worn mattress on the side of the road. This was the canvas for his first piece. He painted "1776–2000 R.I.P." on the mattress and left it where he'd found it, near a freeway on-ramp.
Now, Randall has honed his craft and his work has been featured in the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He says he gets 2,000 hits a day on his website and has received over 4,000 e-mails from people across the country who have taken inspiration from his blog. Randall, who has logged over 150,000 miles for his blog, hasn't gone much further than the West Coast because, he says, "the medium is what I'm promoting more than anything. It makes more sense if a guy in Indiana starts putting up [his own] signs." Besides, Randall quips, he'd rather stick to the coast because "the red-state guys have guns."
While he was in town, I accompanied Randall as he staked out high-visibility spots for his signs. As we drove south on I-5, Randall spotted the words "Free Mumia" messily scrawled in white spray paint on the Northeast 45th Street overpass. "If you put in a little more craft, people pay more attention. Duct tape, hammers, nails, bungees, and signs: That's all you need really. Once you get into the groove, [you] can make 40 [signs] in a night."
Randall, who had already spent the day planting signs near the Jackson Park Golf Course and the I-5 corridor along Lake Union, circles through the International District till he finds a suitable spot. Lugging an enormous cardboard slab on his back, Randall walks through Kobe Terrace Park, at the northern tip of the International District, overlooking the freeway. He clambers down a steep, ivy-covered hillside—clad in an orange vest, which he jokingly refers to as his "cloak of invisibility"—and unfurls his eight-foot-wide black-and-white sign, which reads: "The War Is a Lie." "If you place them right, half a million people [will see them]." Randall quickly secures his sign on the fence with several bungee cords and hurries out of the park.
He says he's been busted seven times. Six of those times he just had to take down his signs. "Out of the seven times I've been caught," he tells me, "three of them were with a reporter." SPD spokeswoman Debra Brown says that "if [Randall] is on private property, he could be trespassing. Besides the obvious dangers of climbing out onto a structure over the freeway... he could get himself in trouble... if he starts posting on the freeway overpasses. It's distracting and it could cause an accident."
Despite the costs and risks associated with his full-time activism, Randall quit his job as an English teacher at San Diego State University seven years ago because, he says, in order to make an impact, "the first thing you have to do is quit your job. I don't worry much about the future. There isn't going to be one if we don't do something."