LA Has 4,000 Illegal Billboards, But City Looks On Helplessly

In 2002, LA banned any new billboards from going up in the city. Since then, an estimated four thousand have been put up by advertising companies who have ignored the law, which obviously the city’s billboard inspectors—”a tiny, and some say incredibly inept, group”—have never bothered to enforce.

These things aren’t cheap or makeshift, either.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, a furtive crew of workers for L.A. Outdoor Advertising poured a cement foundation next to the Harbor Freeway and anchored a huge metal structure into the wet cement. A few days and roughly $100,000 later, the crew had erected L.A.’s latest illegal billboard atop an equally illegal 10-ton superstructure that can be removed only with a wrecker.

for its crime, L.A. Outdoor was “cited” and “ordered” to take down the illegal billboard “immediately.” Five months later, that billboard still looms large. City Hall has caved to outdoor advertisers for so many years that L.A. Outdoor is touting the illegal billboard in a photo array on its Web site — a bleak reminder that billboards run amuck here, and their owners enjoy impunity.

City officials don’t even have a list of all billboard owners, and seem incapable of creating one because that would require demanding information from the advertising companies, which they seem unwilling to do:

Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor, Vista and others use the legal system as a delaying tactic, filing lawsuit upon lawsuit. City officials so badly fear the wrath of the billboard companies that they resisted giving L.A. Weekly basic, public facts about existing legal and illegal billboards. Plenty of U.S. cities have required the firms to hand over their inventory lists — a necessary step before activists, neighbors and inspectors can ID and dispute illegal billboards. Houston forced its billboard companies to hand over a list. So did Philadelphia and San Francisco. Florida”s Department of Transportation obtained its list — in 1972.

But in Los Angeles, the newspaper had to hire a First Amendment attorney to obtain simple information from quaking workers at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, a taxpayer-funded agency that deals almost exclusively in public data. For months, department spokesman Robert Steinbach refused to talk, behaving as if he were protecting the national security.

“Billboards Gone Wild: 4,000 Illegal Billboards Choke L.A.’s Neighborhoods” [LA Weekly] (Thanks to Elliott!)
(Photo: r_neches)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Me - now with more humidity says:

    Start fining them $1,000 a day. In a couple of weeks, you could make a serious dent in the LAUSD deficit.

    • TechnoDestructo says:

      @Ryan H:

      This only works if you can identify which ones are legal and which are illegal. Which, as the post states, is deliberately obfuscated.

  2. weave says:

    Nice photoshop job!

  3. Ryan H says:

    Are you kidding? This is perfect. Anyone who has ever wanted to prank a billboard now has the opportunity.

    Get some friends and some paint. If you know someone at a print shop with a sense of humor, even better.

    As long as you live close by, I bet you can keep messing with it faster than the billboard company can clean it up.

    What are they going to do? Charge you with vandalism to their illegal billboard?

    Oh, the opportunity…

  4. Nytmare says:

    Baltimore pulled it off, although it took several years and some red tape. I really hope LA prevails, but it sounds like they’ll need to hire some movers and shakers first.

  5. elisa says:

    WAIT A SEC…I know the place in the picture! It’s of a motel owned by a family friend, on Santa Monica Blvd in West L.A. (the address is of a neighbor). I got to ask if the sign’s actually there!

  6. Trai_Dep says:

    Yay for scouring alternative papers! Yay!

  7. elisa says:

    ah nevermind by seeing the pic it came from, I see it’s a photoshop job. It’d be hilarious if that was actually said…

  8. Trai_Dep says:

    Oh, and one of the leading billboard companies? Clear Channel.

  9. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    I had no idea there was a ban on new billboards. I guess this explains why Clear Channel replaced some of their existing billboards with electronic versions. More ads, less billboards required. But I do have to say, it looks tacky.

  10. differcult says:

    @Ryan H: Trespassing is still a crime

  11. Buran says:

    Check permits issued against locations. If no permit exists, knock down. End of story.

  12. Not suprised. When a guy pranked a freeway sign, the city kept it up because it was actually helpful.


  13. bbagdan says:

    Companies can pretty much do whatever they please.

    But god forbid you get caught speeding!

  14. jamesdenver says:

    What a blight against an urban landscape.

    On a smaller note I’m a member of []

    Even though I’m never on the site – I don’t know why more people don’t take down these ugly signs for scams and other garbage.

    You can bet in my neighborhood (Congress Park/Denver) if some litters this trash on our corners some Saturday morning they’ll be gone in a few hours.

  15. Jaysyn was banned for: says:


    No kidding. If I was the Govenator I’d be all over L.A. to be collecting fines for these eyesores. Don’t pay the fines? You’ll come to work one day & there will be large chains & padlocks on your doors & some CHIPies waiting for you with the shiny bracelets.

  16. Sys Admn says:

    IANAL, but in my state, it’s not trespassing until the second time you’re told to leave (yea, a sign counts as a first time).

    If you are cited by the police for trespassing, can the billboard owner be subpoena’d to appear at the trial? If your defense is that that the owner didn’t mind, and they don’t show, they face legal sanctions. If they do show, are they going to admit under oath that the installation is illegal?
    Worst case, you lose and get court costs and a fine – it might be worth $500 to embarass the city.

  17. Sudonum says:

    It has been widely reported that the LA City Attorney, Rocky Delgadillo is in the pockets of the billboard companies. []

  18. I love L.A.!
    (We love it!)

  19. scoosdad says:

    This has all the makings of a great comedy flick. Is the guy who played the principal from Ferris Bueller available anymore after his trouble with the law? He’d be great as the harried city official who battles the sly evil billboard company executive, played by Danny DeVito.

  20. plustax says:

    Is that actually a photoshopped billboard? It would not surprise me if it was not and just part of yet another clever “viral” marketing campaign they like to do in this town.

    Also, are billboards all that bad? I’ve lived both in Chicago and now here in LA and maybe its just something I’m used to seeing. I love going to NY and Toronto and I couldn’t imagine those towns without iconic billboards. They really just blend into the background and become part of the urban landscape.

    Isn’t the Hollywood(land) sign just a giant billboard afterall? I’d say if I saw a giant Marlboro sign on any of the hills I might change my position here.

  21. WhirlyBird says:

    @differcult: Only on private property. If a billboard is illegally placed on a city-owned right-or-way, then you’re not trespassing.

  22. Pixel says:

    Get a CalTran crew together, equip them with a crane truck a couple dumptruck and a pile of gas-powered metal cutting saws and/or oxy/acetylene torches.

    Slap a notice on each billboard saying “You have two months for X date to either remove this billboard or bring it into compliance.”

    Wait two months.

    Cut the billboards down and cut them up. Sell the steel for scrap to pay for the project (10tons of steel = $2,000+ in scrap value). When a company calls to complain about their billboard being cut down, fine them for erecting an illegal billboard and charge them for the “removal costs”.

    Watch spot, if billboard goes up again repeat.

  23. TheGoodReverend says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s still trespassing and vandalism and destruction of property and all that other fun stuff, even if the billboard is there illegally. A car’s illegal parking job doesn’t give you license to steal it, does it?

    That said, here’s a low-cost way for LA’s city counsel to address the issue: make it legal to do all those nasty things to illegal billboards.

  24. youbastid says:

    @Buran: I don’t think you get it, as usual, and you’re oversimplifying. Do you think 4,000 billboards wouldn’t have gotten built if the city had just followed your totally uninformed advice?

    The reason they’re getting away with this is because they’re deep in city official’s pockets. It’s just another glaring example of the corporate takeover of public space.

    But hey, they’re illegal, so just knock ’em down, right?

  25. tourpro says:

    Motion Filed To Dismiss Charges In Sign Permit Case

    It’s like playing “Whack-a-mole”.

  26. humorbot says:

    Y’all ought to read the entire article. The whole point is that it’s virtually impossible to determine which billboards are legal and which are not–much less actually take action against them–thanks to years of bureaucratic ineptitude by city government and effective collusion among Clear Channel, Viacom, Regency and highly placed officials like city attorney Rocky Delgadillo and members of the city council.

  27. SajalaAugeas says:

    Comment on LA Has 4,000 Illegal Billboards, But City Looks On Hel plessly That wasn’t a prank. It was a local artist tired of the
    insufficient/confusing signage on that particular freeway interchange.

  28. Czum says:

    Just print a bunch of LARGE cheap banners to laminate over each billboard:

    “This is an illegal billboard. It is owned by [company-name]. Their public relations department can be reached at [company phone number]. Please ask them to remove this billboard.”

    Hopefully angry calls from the public will convince them to do the right thing where the ineffective city office has failed.

    Of course, this depends on correct identification of the illegal billboards in the first place, as humorbot points out.

  29. dammer says:

    I would love to create a wiki/google map sort of site where users could go in and map out the billboards in their neighborhood. Is that possible? You could take a picture of the billboard, upload it to the site, and add as much detail as you want. Do the city council’s job for them.

  30. Ssscorpion says:

    the city’s billboard inspectors … have never bothered to enforce.

    Is there anything better in life than being a member of a government labor union? High pay, great benefits, almost no expectations and virtually impossible to get fired.

  31. donkeyjote says:

    @differcult: Trespassing can only happen on legally located locations. On preview, what “Sys Admn” said

    @Buran: It costs the city alot of money for that. Though I’m sure the city can sell the scrap metal to make it up.

    @TourPro: With that “sign” the thing is that its a message, compared to just a logo. And it’s mostly stationary. At a certain point, 30 days out of 30 days parked in a spot means its an intentional ploy to advertise (It’s a local churches ad, even has a website address on it). The quickest way to avoid that would be to reposition the trailer so that the message faces away from oncoming traffic.

  32. Buran says:

    @donkeyjote: Around here, if the city has to clean up your mess or do something because you didn’t when you were obliged to under the law, they send you the bill. The city won’t pay for this stuff. The offender will.

    And, like you say, they’ll probably forfeit the illegal structure. Probably the moeny from selling the scrap WOULD go toward the balance, but there’d be a lot left over.

  33. kyle4 says:

    It’s LA, where celebrities can drive drunk and get away with it. Of course they’re not removing their illegal billboards.

  34. TechnoDestructo says:


    Exactly. Better yet, require the permits to be posted where they are easily visible on the billboard or its structure. If it isn’t within say, 6 feet of the ground, it should be blown up large enough to be read with binoculars.

    This reminds me of a story a former supervisor was telling me about when he worked in a small town maintaining the power lines. He found cable TV lines on his poles, that the power company knew nothing about. A fly-by-night cable company had set up, just running the cables on the poles with no permits and no permission. And this is kind of a big deal when you’ve got to climb around this stuff to scale a power pole.

    He just cut the cable at every single pole, destroying tens of thousands of dollars worth of cable. And the only notification the cable company got was when their customers started calling them.

    The same approach would work here. No notification, no nothing, just yank ’em down.

    Disposal would be a problem, though, I think.

  35. @differcult: That explains why there is never any graffiti on freeway overpasses…

  36. Bog says:

    If the billboards were erected (knowingly) illegally then they would not have any legal or civil protection from “vandalism.” This means if we have a list of illegal billboards, we can remove or deface them at will! HAHA

  37. lim says:

    @plustax: are billboards all that bad?

    Maybe not to those living in cities. We banned billboards in VT 40 years ago [] and I have to admit it’s nice to have all that lack of advertising. We do still have farmers writing candidate’s names in hay bales though.

    I guess Maine, Hawaii and Alaska have also said, “No thanks” though I don’t know how long ago.

  38. spaz-a-lot says:

    people are starving in the streets but lets waste more money fighting over something so gay

  39. donkeyjote says:

    @TechnoDestructo: Tell me he saved the copper for scrap :D

  40. TechnoDestructo says:

    Alaska has the right idea. There’s no trouble sorting out legal from illegal billboards…all billboards are illegal.