San Francisco

Oakland Gallery Celebrates Counter-Culture Instigator John Law With Exhibit

It's pretty much impossible to cram all of John Law’s feats of the last 40 years into a single paragraph. Much like trying to stuff mementoes of all of those things into a single gallery exhibition.

Which is what makes a visit to his current exhibition at Oakland’s Pro Arts Gallery a feat in itself.

Just gander at a greatly abbreviated list of what Law has been up to the last four decades; Illegally scaling the Golden Gate Bridge and numerous other urban structures in the dead of night; “improving” commercial billboards with alternate messages — also at night, riding naked on a cable car, staging poetry readings and other covert gatherings in city sewers and train tunnels, and co-founding Burning Man. That’s not even counting his main gig — creating and maintaining some of the Bay Area’s most iconic neon.

"I came to believe over time,” Law said in his office atop Oakland’s Tribune Tower, “that you should always find out what you’re supposed to do and do something else."

There are many something elses in Law’s world. So much so that the Pro Arts gallery hardly has the wall space to adequately hold it all. On a recent day, Law stood in the room a stone’s throw from Oakland City Hall, eyes darting across the eclectic artifacts of his life.

Getty Images
Neon artist John Law created the “Fun” sign for Cyclecide Bicycle Club.

"When I put all that stuff on the wall and sat back and looked at it for the first time I almost threw up," Law said of the show which ends Saturday.

Law doesn’t think of himself as an artist. He’s more of a prankster, an instigator who likes tossing absurdities at the establishment. He was a street soldier in underground groups like the Suicide Club, the Billboard Liberation Front and a founder of the Cacophony Society which was legendary in the Bay Area for throwing oddball gatherings such the first Santa Con, which consists of hundreds of people donned as Santa parading through the city. Law describes the original gathering as a far cry from the current drunken pub crawl the event has devolved into every December.

"There was a little more thought in those events," Law explained as a video in the exhibit displayed the early tribe of Santas wandering around the city. "At least in my mind we were making fun of consumerism in a light-hearted way."

The Pro Arts exhibition is aglow with some the neon Law has created over his career. There is a neon likeness of bearded Ron Turner, founder of counter-culture Last Gasp publishing. There’s a glowing smiley face from one of the early Burning Man events in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Law, whose job was to put the neon skeleton on the man effigy, decided to prank the event one year by adding a smiley face to the man, much to the dismay of co-founder Larry Harvey who ordered it taken down.

"So it would go up at night and it was on a timer so it would only go on for a few seconds," Law said chuckling — noting that revelers would do a double-take at the briefly appearing face.

The exhibit also includes headlines and photos of Law’s clandestine urban explorations to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge at night as part of the Suicide Club. The group would stage events in active train tunnels, lead tours through city sewers and stage parties in abandoned buildings.

Joe Rosato Jr.
Artist/prankster John Law is the subject of a retrospective exhibition in Oakland’s Pro Arts Gallery.

"We were very careful not to leave anything," Law said. "We never tagged or leave anything, we were like ghosts — so that was like the whole idea."

Law said he was far less terrified of climbing bridges than he was the time he and some members of the Cacophony Society decided to ride a San Francisco cable car naked. He overcame his fear and did it. Once. The photo of the event in the exhibition stands less as a boast than an entry in a wanderers journal.

"So we’re hoping the younger generation will engage with the historical narrative that you can see here in the show," said the show's curator Natalia Ivanova Mount, "and be inspired to do explorations and to do pranks." 

These days, Law is less likely to climb a bridge or tall building than he is to show up at an event with a trailer filled with three large Doggie Diner heads he helped save. He never collects a cent from the appearances — like most things he’s done in life, he does it for fun. 

"It’s like anything that makes you happy for a few minutes is a good thing," Law said.

The closing reception of John Law's Exhibit is Saturday August 24th, 7pm to midnight at Pro Arts in Oakland.

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