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NewsPress • Embattled billboard boasts free-speech message

San Mateo County Times
Embattled billboard boasts free-speech message
2001-05-04

The following newspaper article has been included on this website for informational purposes only.

The original article was published in the San Mateo County Times. By Martha McPartlin

SAN MATEO -- There's a message coming soon to a billboard here, but exactly what it means is up for debate. On one hand, it's an artistic expression of cherished American ideals, as asserted by the billboard''s owner. On the other, it may be fuel for the fire between the city and the company as the two sides battle the question of the billboard's legality, and t he company's free speech rights, in court. The new sign will appear Monday and will feature a piece of artworkportraying a 13-foot by 20-foot American flag comprised of one-dollar bills, titled "The American Way."It will take the place of an advertisement on one of the two billboards along Highway 101 now at the center of a legal fight between the city and the sign company, Valley Outdoor, Inc.

Created by Miami Beach-based artist Steven Gagnon, the piece is intended to express a view that Valley Outdoor owner Keith Stephens said parallels the issues raised in the company's lawsuit against the city. "To me (the piece) said free speech, it said free enterprise," Stephens said. "It's what our country was established for." The billboards appeared with little notice in March, and within two weeks, the company had filed suit in federal court challenging the city's signcontrol ordinance on grounds of free-speech infringement. The city has maintained the ordinance is legal, and the court battle is expected to last well into next year. Stephens said the decision to put up the artwork is not a direct comment on the lawsuit, nor is it intended to rankle city officials, who are already miffed over the sign's surprise appearance. But it does represent one of his strongest beliefs. "I hope that it raises controversy," he said. "and I hope it causes people to talk. In my opinion, this is a powerful message."

Gagnon's image will stay up for the next two months, which will cost the company roughly $20,000 a month in lost leases. After its run in San Mateo, the sign will move to San Diego and then Riverside in Southern California. Its message will certainly mean different things to different people, as is the case with all artwork, Gagnon, 27, said of his piece. He was inspired to create the image years ago after traveling in Europe and reflecting on what it means to be an American in a globalized world.

Both the flag and the dollar bills represent symbols -- either good or bad-- to which all Americans can relate, he said. The piece, he said, represents the opportunity the country offers. "People come here to achieve their economic freedom," he said. This will be the first time Gagnon has had his work shown to such a large audience (as many as 200,000 drivers travel Highway 101 each day), and it's an exciting prospect. "For any artist, that's really unheard of," he said. "This is an unbelievable amount of exposure."

The American Way" has had its share of attention already, with one print part of the permanent collection at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C., and another touring with a collection including works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Embattled billboard boasts free-speech message