Rebellious, playful, and socially progressive has yet again struck a chord within California marijuana culture, with the Hollywood sign, over a span of 41 years having been twice tinkered with in a cannabis awareness sort of way. In acknowledgment of the modern feat California artist ‘Jesus Hands‘ performed alone early morning January 1st, 2017, taking nearly three hours to complete, I went ahead and took a deep look into the HollyWEED sign change. The origins, if applied simply, were motivated by changes to California marijuana laws; however, I believe that, like any good reboot, the culture itself is passing a familiar threshold, if only in a deja vu sort of way.
Political Commentary Spanning Generations
Jesus Hands’ surprised the city of Angels early New Year’s morning in an apparent homage to alterations Daniel Finegood jovially applied to the iconic Hollywood sign New Year’s Day, 1976. The idea: throw fabric over the two Hollywood sign, altering the letter into a lowercase e. A bit absurdist, a bit social commentary, and all in good fun, the brief, playful “Hollyweed” sign change went on to become a pop culture hit of cannabis intrigue and appreciation, both then and now.
If only temporary, amusement and curiosity are some of the values artists, journalists, innovators, and commentators provide to society. The ability to see things in a different way; to frame culturally accepted iconography unexpectedly and in possibly abstract ways, while remaining capable of cultural resonance can help foster collective expression, the very foundation that democratic culture and government are built. A type of conversation starter, the creative enterprise that is “Hollyweed” is, therefore, an act of expression — albeit rebellious — celebrating the victory of people over the political establishment, though, possibly, this means that people felt undermined by their own government, like their voice didn’t matter, and it needed to be heard.
Hollyweed: A Harmless Novelty
If you had never been to Hollywood, and you happened to be there along at the same time the mountainside beacon of tinseltown had temporarily been adjudicated to a cannabis friendly “Hollyweed”, that is just a fundamentally unique California experience. Even if you lived there, this would be an unconventional thing to see. A deep look into the HollyWEED sign change starts at this point: the conversational novelty.
Daniel Finegood was an art student with a project: he’d need to create an art piece demonstrating the use of scale. Motivated by both the grade and the attention of a girl, his future wife Bonnie, he used $50 dollars worth of curtain fabric and the aid of a few friends, ascending Mt. Lee New Year’s Day 1976. His actions went the 1970s equivalent of viral.
In the years to come, Mr. Finegood would complete several other alterations of the sign, mocking military hero-worship, celebrating holidays, and even in an unseen protest of the Gulf War. Eventually, the landmark sign would be awarded video monitoring and fences to protect it from such harmless alphabetical escapades. In his debut stunt, presumed a celebratory cajole regarding California’s decriminalization of cannabis, Finegood immortalized “Hollyweed” forever into the marijuana lexicon.
In a letter to the L.A. Times in 1983, Finegood rebuked any notion of vandalism, recounting the role of art, parody in changing how things can be viewed:
“We broke no laws and did no damage to the sign…An artist’s role throughout history has been to create representations of the culture he exists in. By hanging four relatively small pieces of fabric on the landmark, we were able to change people’s perception of the Hollywood Sign” wrote Mr. Finegood.
In 2017, California reformed marijuana policy a step further, legalizing cannabis fully for adults age 21 and up, yet this isn’t the only recurring theme joining the two points in California history.
1976 & 2016: Politically Disgruntled and Cannabis Friendly
The past decade has experienced an economic meltdown, significant job loss, wage stagnation, high gas prices, and vast changes to the world political situation. We’ve also seen some turn round, with wage growth in 2017 touting highs not experienced in four decades and unemployment levels not seen since the late 1990s. 2016, in particular, was a year marked by affronting political and cultural identity separation — belaying bipartisan idealism at a magnitude that made US citizens more frustrated than confident, but equally solidified resolve that change is needed.
Taking a deep look into the “Hollyweed” sign change forces us to recount nearly a half century. In so doing, parallels in the American political and social culture of the 1970s and present day are revealed, almost as precariously as the cannabis grin both Finegood and ‘Jesus Hands’ applied on the cliffside monument. Here’s some facts about the swinging sociopolitical culture of the 1970s:
Marginalized Communities Fought for Equality
The 1970s were, in some ways, a continuation of the national civil liberties strife that afflicted the 1960s. The early 1970s saw rise to women’s advocacy groups, feminist bookstores, cafes, crisis centers, and clinics. Gays, Lesbians, African American, and American Indians all continued to fight for individual rights.
Government Fumbled in Public Transparency, Trust
The War in Vietnam, riots, assassinations, and discrimination were topics that would capture the 1960s. By the time the Nixon Administration and the Watergate scandal had run its course, public faith in the intentions of the government had been significantly diminished. The public disconnect was furthered by unhappiness about the growing national debt, high unemployment, wage stagnation, and an oil crisis, raising gas prices to levels not previously experienced by the American public.
A Domineering Progressive Culture
With strong anti-war sentiment, particularly regarding the continued US involvement in Indochina, California developed a strong cultural attache to the free-love hippy movement, and, by extension, cannabis acceptance was integral to the state social order. The rise of the next generation, one of an idealist and not a realist, had become a prevalent social force in major cities across the US, fighting for welfare, human rights, ending conflict, and poverty relief.
The “New Right” Emerges
The shift of social values happened with such tenacity, many felt left behind — replaced by the swinging bellbottoms and civil liberties which threatened what many of the silent generation and baby boomers considered traditional roles and values of American culture. The wave of peace-loving and civil rights expansion inspired a conservative backlash, with a new type of American Conservative emerging. People thought the government was too big, needed to be scaled back, and that good jobs had been lost to the changing social order. Furthering women’s roles in the workforce and allowing homosexuals to be teachers or hold public office was a perversion of traditional American upbringing.
HollyWEED: Then & Now
A shroud of stolen emails, hacking concerns, private servers, fake news, the politicalization of a pizza place, online political marginalization, evidence of actual marginalization: racial, gender, religious, or LGBT, in addition to the involvement of a foreign government, partisan self-sabotage, and the rise of a new type of conservative populism, sat atop 2016, almost as if you owed it something.
A deep look at the “Hollyweed” sign change, particularly focusing on cultural parallels of the 1970s and the decade leading up to current day, presents us with a remarkable amount of overlap. The 1970s were marked by war, political scandal, civil liberty struggles, drug use, domineering cultural attitudes focused in national population centers, rapid technological advancement, unemployment highs, and oil price fluctuations. Inflation broke wage growth in the 70s, and it just hasn’t happened much since. People felt then as they do now: removed from the governmental order and that society was leaving them behind.
The echoes of politicized wars, marginalization of minority communities, an opiate crisis, party self-sabotage (DNC emails and Bernie, Watergate and Nixon), rapid technological changes, as well as fundamental transitions of traditional roles, including those of the government in providing health care, are themes that continue to disillusion the public, then as they do now.
In an interview, Zach Fernandez, aka ‘Jesus Hands’, along with his ex-wife told Vice the following:
“...it’s important to reframe situations so that no matter the circumstances, it’s a positive. Any way I can bring positivity into the world, or guide or steer people away from the negativity or bad parts of life, even if it’s a little bit risky, I’m down. I just want to make sure the message is clear. It’s about being and staying youthful and living in the purest form.”
And in a true Daniel Finegood salute, Fernandez admits it was both a celebration of marijuana reform and a conversation starter, reframing the world 2017 woke up to.