After getting high in the Hollywood Hills for a New Year’s Eve prank that changed the iconic Hollywood sign to Hollyweed, Los Angeles-area artist Zachary Cole Fernandez is now experiencing the buzz-kill of a potential 6-month jail stint for trespassing. The cannabis fan and sometime funnyman is not letting it bring him down, however.
He is scheduled to appear in court February 15, but we got a chance to talk with the typographical jokester and installation artist about cannabis, politics, danger and art.
How much planning went into the Hollyweed installation?
The thought of it had been around probably two and a half or three months. I did go up and hike around two weeks prior to the actual install and made sure everything was squared away, so I could see what I was working with. It’s been in the pot for a while, but the actual execution of getting everything prepared was three days or so of gathering the parts and pieces together.
Reportedly there are motion sensors and alarms around the sign: How did you avoid them?
When I got up there to scout the location, there were motion sensor cameras. I have a background in telecom so I was pretty familiar with what I was seeing. But there was an intercom system where you hear static on the line, so I was nervous that somebody was going to say, “Hey we see you.” But it didn’t happen.
While altering the sign, what did you fear more: falling or getting caught?
A little bit of both. Had I been able to have the proper resources, and some helpers, I don’t think it would have been that scary physically. I was more scared of getting caught than I would be of the actual fall. When I worked in telecom, I mostly lost the fear of heights. I got used to doing crazy stuff, walking on beams, climbing towers, going up tall ladders. Most times we were tied off with a safety harness. With that background I was totally prepared to be up high. But while doing the install I had to forego the use of the harness after a while in order to complete the project. It was kind of comical. I had to improvise and use the safety harness rope to tie up one of the letters in order to finish the project. So I did.
So you were flying solo that night, without any assistants up in the Hills?
I had an ambition to do it myself, but I asked people to help and they said no. And I’m like, “I’m not going let that stop me, I’m gonna do it.” That’s how I am in life. I feel good about it. And looking back, I’m glad it turned out like it did.
When you told the New York Times, “Yeah, I broke the rules, but I broke it with good spirit and good intentions. It was just to bring light and positivity and happiness,” were you reaching out to the cannabis community?
I definitely wasn’t reaching out to them specifically, but more to Californians as a whole, to say, “Hey, you know what, the majority of us said ‘yes.'” We’re progressive and we received the benefit and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s to come with the big benefits of cannabis, with art, with conversation. To be able to be on the same page [with my fellow Californians], just for one minute was great. Personally I’ve seen people within my inner circle who have been opposed to cannabis who have all of a sudden switched their views on it. And it’s shone a light on the positivity of it.
How do you think your prank, and California’s vote to legalize recreational pot, will be received by the president-elect and his anti-cannabis attorney general nominee?
Honestly I’m not really too sure. I kind of keep my head loose on politics. I don’t know how they’ll respond. Hopefully it’ll put a smile on their faces too.
Did you know of the previous alterations of the sign to Hollyweed?
I originally came up with the idea without any prior knowledge of that history, but I definitely did my research. I realize it’s not an original organic idea. But everything’s open to interpretation—it’s like someone covering a song. Covers turn out in a way that the original artists never thought possible. It’s a beautiful thing.
Have you done any other public art installations or events?
Not of this size, obviously, but I’ve done some video installs in the dry LA riverbed. I’ve been doing a lot of video, both personal and commissioned work. My main thing has been music production, and the installs have opened a whole new door for me. I’m really inspired—it’s a great way to deliver messages and do it in a peaceful way that’s non-destructive. A way to take the resources we have and make something good.
We’ve heard that you have a special place in your heart for cannabis. What’s your personal background with the plant?
My background with the plant goes back to my early teen years. A bong hit changed my perspective on life that’s for sure. More recently…I’ve been ‘growing’ marijuana for about 5 years. I’ve grown indoor and grown outdoor on a 40-acre ranch in the Central Coast. I took a lot of risks and learned a lot about the plant. I also learned a lot about growing in general. It’s definitely changed my stereotype on what the industry is built of: It’s hard frickin’ work, growing. It’s like some of the hardest work that I’ve ever done in my life was growing. Appreciation definitely needs to be driven to that. The growers, they work their asses off.
I definitely have a huge appreciation for the plant. It has worked wonders for me with anxiety and pain and depression. Recreationally [legal cannabis] is going to be a big eye opener and a big door opener for so many people. So many people are ready for it. Now we’re going to have to just see what comes, what evolves.