If you woke up in Los Angeles, or anywhere else in the world, on New Year’s Day this year, you may have noticed a curious sight: the iconic Hollywood sign transformed into “Hollyweed.” It was a welcome act of rebellion after one of the most fucked up years in history. From some social media posts, it looked like a Photoshop job – a meme to celebrate the new California law legalizing the recreational consumption of marijuana. As news of the stunt spread, it was obvious that someone had actually altered the Hollywood sign. How it was altered, and the extent of the damage, wasn’t apparent upon first examination, but as the helicopters buzzing overhead started zooming in, it was clear that there was no damage at all – just white and black sheets to change the double O’s into double E’s. It was brilliant. But it wasn’t the first time someone had pulled the same stunt. In 1976, Daniel Finegood, an art student at Cal State Northridge changed the Hollywood sign to read the same thing on the same day that possession of an ounce of weed was downgraded to a misdemeanor, and then again during the Persian Gulf War to read 'Oil War.' This time around, the prankster turned out to be Los Angeles based artist Zach Fernandez, otherwise known as Jesus Hands. After the stunt, he skipped town, but after the LAPD turned up the heat, he surrendered. We got a chance to catch up with Fernandez at his Downtown studio to smoke a joint and discuss his intentions behind peacefully altering one of the most iconic city landmarks.
AUTRE: Are you from Los Angeles?
ZACH FERNANDEZ: Not from Los Angeles per se. I grew up in Southern California. I lived in the Inland Empire till I was eight or nine and then I lived by the beach, Pismo Beach for the remainder. I went back and forth between here and SoCal and then I’ve lived in Pomona most recently. I’ve kind of just been all over, a bit nomadic I guess.
AUTRE: So, a lot of people are probably trying to talk to you about this project right now.
FERNANDEZ: Yeah, these last two weeks. The first week was the equivalent of a year or two’s life span. I had no idea what the deal was, it was so crazy.
AUTRE: People didn’t know it was you until…?
FERNANDEZ: Until a couple days later. And even still people are coming up like “that was you?” and I’m like “yeah, were you living under a rock?”
AUTRE: I read something about Tommy Chong calling you about it.
FERNANDEZ: Yeah it was really special. We had a good moment and he gave some solid advice. I didn’t know what to expect, you know, it’s Tommy Chong. You can expect a million different things and be way off. I was on the train, just trying to get out of town, and he direct messaged me on Instagram and said “let’s talk.” It wasn’t his PR guy or something, it was him. I was just like, “holy crap what is happening.”
AUTRE: So what did he want to talk to you about?
FERNANDEZ: Honestly, it was very simple, it was just “hey that put a huge smile on my face, thank you for that.” And then I asked for some advice. He said, “look, you chose to become famous and now there’s no going back. Really think about that.”
AUTRE: So he knew that after this project, that was it.
FERNANDEZ: He knew. The synchronicity that I live by, it’s my motto.
AUTRE: Is all the attention you’re getting intimidating or is it slightly exciting?
FERNANDEZ: It’s both, it’s definitely both. It’s just figuring out what to do from here. This is just the beginning, for the world, working out this type of stuff.
AUTRE: Have you done anything on this scale?
FERNANDEZ: Not this scale. But there’s something bigger to come. Art for me is almost an adrenaline rush, it’s the weirdest thing. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it like that but I find that it makes me so excited, that I obsess over it, and lose sleep over it—there’s this burning and driving. Every artist knows that feeling, everyone can relate. And then there’s the times when it’s gone and that’s the scary part. It’s like, fuck what is this? But then it comes back. It’s the flow. Once you realize there’s this ebb and flow to life, things come and go, everything else works out.
AUTRE: When did you put the plan into motion?
FERNANDEZ: It originally was just a seed. I’ve kind of regurgitated this a little bit in the media but I basically just put out this shout out on Facebook: “hey I’m looking to do an art install in the LA area everybody should message me.” I got like three messages. It was funny to see. I was like, “this is my idea, I’m committed.” I had some people who were like “Oh yeah” and then would disappear and I didn’t want to go out and track them down.
AUTRE: Did they know initially? Or did you tell them as things unfolded?
FERNANDEZ: Some people knew and then other people had to say yes and then I would tell them about the plan.
AUTRE: The materials you used were tarp, right?
FERNANDEZ: People say tarps but they were actually sheets. It was a very resourceful project considering our circumstances. We did it for like $35 in total: limited paint from Home Depot was like seven bucks.
AUTRE: Wait so the blacked out part was paint?
FERNANDEZ: A black sheet.
AUTRE: What did you use the paint for?
FERNANDEZ: I painted on the sheet, on the black part. It was hard to see. It flipped one way and kind of hung around the side. It was very hard to make out so I hesitated to do it but decided even if people couldn’t see it I was going to do it anyways. It’s a tribute. My buddy posted a photo of the original “Hollyweed” and I was like, “what, somebody has done this before?”
AUTRE: So you had the idea and then you saw that somebody had done the same thing?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. I was like “whoa, okay hold on a minute let’s see what this guy did.” So I figured out some of the details and his background and played on that. I didn’t just want to be this person regurgitating ideas but sometimes history has to repeat itself to learn something new. That’s what life's all about. We learn, we fail, we learn, we fail. And the climate was perfect. So I was like, this guy is channeling his energy through me; I didn’t even know he’d died of cancer. I saw an interview of his wife about my project being like “oh, my heart.”
AUTRE: Oh amazing, did she reach out to you directly?
FERNANDEZ: Her family has and said some really deep stuff and I’m like “holy crap, this is so sacred to me.” I haven’t been able to meet them physically.
AUTRE: That’s heavy. Funny, you did it for thirty-five bucks? I think he did it for fifty. Accounting for inflation you still dropped the price…
FERNANDEZ: I know, I guess it costs more in the risk is what it came down to. But I had no fear about the whole project. I mean I had doubts, but zero fear. I had my intentions. I said that’s gonna be done and I’m gonna walk away.
AUTRE: And it really didn’t seem to be about vandalism. People immediately thought that maybe you vandalized the sign or you knocked out part of the white or something like that.
FERNANDEZ: Totally. They thought I messed up the letters.
AUTRE: Immediately upon looking at it, they were like “Oh, shit! Someone fucked up the Hollywood sign” which would have been a massive act of vandalism, but looking at it closer, you realize it’s not that. Your work is not about desecration at all.
FERNANDEZ: No, it’s all about finding a way to, I don’t want to say manipulate the system, but a way to peacefully, respectfully maybe not work against, but work with the system. You get your messages out without this unnecessary punishment.
AUTRE: There’s nothing hostile about it.
AUTRE: So you knew that maybe you would get in trouble for it, because of the trespassing?
FERNANDEZ: I did the research on the trespassing and the vandalism. Looked at the law for what vandalism really is.
AUTRE: They couldn’t get you on vandalism, but they’re trying to get you for the trespassing. So the day afterwards, you head out of town and when did you decide to turn yourself in?
FERNANDEZ: I got out of town, talked to my attorneys, came back down here and then I started feeling a little bit paranoid. Because the detectives started laying on the heat a little bit. A lotta bit. It’s a long story. I’m not at will to say right now, but after all this blows over, let me tell you how the LAPD works. It’s very, very scary.
AUTRE: They got tough?
FERNANDEZ: Very tough. Real fast. And it’s fine. Like I said, I had good intentions all the way. I had no idea about how the world would respond to this. I had no fucking clue. So I got done and I just stood there calmly for like two minutes and took it in and was just like, “Whoa. I did it.”
AUTRE: I mean from far away, you could really see it. It looked seamless. Completely seamless.
FERNANDEZ: We studied it and honestly there were no schematics except for the height. We got the height and then I looked at a ladder on the side. The ladder rungs have like a foot space in between each one and then I just got the letter and measured it off of that picture. I was able to get it pretty precise.
AUTRE: You had helicopters up there. You had people from all over the place. You know you’ve done something big when someone’s up there with a helicopter.
FERNANDEZ: I saw that the next morning. You know Sarah woke me up and she was like, “It’s everywhere.” And I was like “What? I don’t even understand what you’re talking about. Last night’s a dream to me. I have no idea what just happened.” Her eyes got so big.
AUTRE: And now it’s a meme.
FERNANDEZ: It is a meme. People were like saying they lived so close to the Hollywood sign and they were like, “Ugh I was in Vegas. I could have gotten my drone up there.” It’s so good. The letters do look like they went all the way around. It’s weird.
AUTRE: You can barely tell. The only time people can tell that it was a sheet is when they really zoomed in with those creepy paparazzi zooms.
FERNANDEZ: The best part was seeing the little firemen after. Seeing how little they were compared to the letters. It took them like thirteen hours to get it all down. It took me three hours to get it up but like ten guys to get it down. I don’t understand.
AUTRE: It seemed like there were not a lot of people around. You were able to pretty much do whatever you wanted.
FERNANDEZ: The day I went and hiked up there it was like two weeks prior just to survey it and see how it was. I got up there around 7:30 in the morning and there was a guy putting an American flag on top of the hill and zip tying it to the post. It’s still fucking there. So I saw it, took a picture. I leave. I saw that there was trash everywhere. If anybody gave a shit about this sign, there wouldn’t be trash everywhere. So that was my ticket and I was just like okay go: do it. Anyway, long story short, that guy ended up direct messaging me with a picture at the fucking sign like, “I’ve been down there, too!” I mean there have probably been hundreds of people who have jumped that gate, taken pictures at the sign, and that’s it.
AUTRE: That original artist, he actually did a few things with the Hollywood sign. I think he did Ollywood during the Oliver North hearings and then he did something during the Gulf War
FERNANDEZ: Exactly, yep. He did “Oil War” and it ended up getting taken down so fast.
AUTRE: So, you don’t have plans to do more with the Hollywood sign? You’re done?
FERNANDEZ: With the Hollywood sign, I’m done. But, definitely worldly. I’ve got some huge things coming up. So I’m super excited. I’m not sure how soon, but soon.