For nearly 34 years, the legendary Happy Foot / Sad Foot Sign — known affectionately by Silver Lake residents as HaFo SaFo — has revolved on the corner of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Originally drawn by the young son of podiatrist Dr. Thomas Lim of Sunset Foot Clinic, the 1985 cartoon billboard turned landmark provided locals with a daily mystic forecast: If you saw the happy, healthy foot first, good fortune was to come. But first see the sad, unhealthy foot, and “your day was fucked.”
On September 5, 2019, perhaps with the foot gods on his side, Billy Wyatt, owner of Y-Que Trading Post, Los Feliz’s screen-printing t-shirt shop / safe haven for the exchange of ideas and information, saw the sign and glimpsed the present and future. But this time, the foresight was for the sign itself, and its destruction, and Billy knew he’d need to act swiftly to turn the tides of its impending fate. With the help of Beatie Wolfe, Mr. X and friends, HaFo SaFo now rests safely on the walls of Y-Que, where it can continue its destiny of bringing residents prosperity and hope of preserving their community’s history and future.
Birdy friend artist Beatie Wolfe chats with Billy, Mr. X (old friend and tech advisor to Billy) and the very lovely and calming force of Elaine Smith about HaFo SaFo: the neighbourhood’s very own Wheel of Fortune, its rescue, communal and cultural significance and how it tells so many stories for so many as a true Los Angeles Sign o’ the Times.
Billy: It was like raiding a tomb of a pharaoh or something and I had it in the back of my truck so I was worried that it might melt or any combination of homeless thieves or something would get hold of it. But I did like the idea of driving around town and showing it off to people, like: “Hey Buddy! You wanna see something!?“
Beatie: You rescued it on Thursday. Did you have it overnight in the truck?
Billy: Yeah a couple of days. Just until we could get it in through the door
Beatie: And then we moved it Saturday. It’s surprisingly light.
Billy: Yes and it’s a lot more durable than previously thought
Beatie: When did you hear that it was potentially going to get taken down?
Billy: May 19, 2019.
Beatie: Was that from Dr. Lim, the foot doctor?
Billy: No, some girls were in the store and they were talking about how the foot doctor might move so I wondered then what would happen to the sign.
Beatie: And do you know much more about that?
Billy: Well, the foot doctor was going to move and there were some efforts to make it a historical landmark and that fell through and once that fell through I stepped in …
Beatie: Why did it fall through?
Billy: Because of the lazy politicians not wanting to do anything and the mayor unable to separate himself from his hectic schedule of butt-kissing.
Beatie: Why was the doc moving in the first place?
Billy: Because they wouldn’t renew his lease.
Beatie: Wasn’t that also because they realised that real estate for the sign was worth more than the clinic?
Billy: We don’t know. That’s the speculation. I don’t know the real motivation because they would not discuss the details of that. The idea was that maybe they would put a restaurant in there for one of their kids and so they didn’t renew the lease and the foot doctor found a new location, but the sign wasn’t necessarily going to his new location. So I volunteered to pay for the transportation of the sign to wherever it was going to go, but then when the landmark efforts or historical efforts fell through I suggested that the sign could come here and the foot doctor agreed. And once I got that confirmation I decided to go by and check the measurements of the sign, which is when I came upon the property owners who had a crane and a truck there, and they were basically taking the sign down unexpectedly. And it happened that they were doing this on the doctor’s one day off …
Beatie: What were they going to do with it?
Billy: We have no idea because they wouldn’t say where they were going to take it or if they were going to break it up.
Beatie: So what happened after that?
Billy: We got the foot doctor on the phone and had a debate, or a bunfight as I like to call it, with the property owners who were at first hiding inside the building but then came out when I refused to leave. And finally after a lot of discussion they agreed that once they had brought the sign down I would take it for safekeeping.
Mr X: The fact that Billy just ended up passing by there on Thursday because the doctor had set up lunch with him this weekend to discuss the sign. But he passed by there and saw it go down. All of a sudden I get this call … “We’ve got to protect the sign, someone’s taking it …” I didn’t know exactly what was going on and the next moment the sign was down and Billy was there protecting it and I made sure that no one took it when he went and got the truck.
Beatie: So that’s when you got it into the van where it stayed overnight before we got it in here?
Billy: Yeah, and figuring out how to get them in here was tricky because they’re 12-by-8 foot.
Beatie: It did involve some light hacking of your door frame and it was amusing to see all the peoples’ faces when we got them out the truck.
Billy: Yeah, people didn’t know what was happening … the feet were on the move!
Beatie: I guess the rotating part was hard to figure but they do fit perfectly side-by-side …
Billy: We’re currently building frames for them, to put backlighting behind and then have a History of the Sign in printed form that people will be able to read as they view them.
Beatie: What other signs would you like to rescue?
Billy: Tang’s Donut and The Velvet Turtle, but that looks like it’s too big of a piece.
Beatie: Would you ever consider going full-on signs?
Billy: The t-shirts go well with the signs because I can print the images of the signs on the shirts.
Beatie: When did you do the first print of the foot t-shirt?
Billy: Probably 10 or more years ago and it’s pretty much by public request as we already did neighbourhood shirts. But for a long time I didn’t want to do the feet because I didn’t want to do front and back so finally someone suggested, “Oh just put them on the same side, ” and we’ve been printing it like that ever since, but we still have requests for about 50 different versions of the ways that the feet can be printed.
Billy: (to customer) Hey there, are you ready?
Billy: Cool — so $10 and $18, but you can spin that wheel for $3 off.
Billy: Okay, happy foot or sad foot?
Buyer: Oh, I choose happy.
Billy: We have a happy foot spinner … Okay … there you go, good spinnin’.
Elaine: Billy’s got the gambling gene too and it’s perfect that he has this sign because the magic of the sign, what people love about the sign, is this element of chance and divination … Is it going to be a good or bad day? Am I going to have good or bad luck? And it’s perfect because he was already doing ‘spin the wheel’ before the feet got here but the way he runs the business, because he’s not running it like a business, it runs on chance, it runs on magic. I think he’s like a chaos magician and there’s this constant creativity. He’s swinging from pole to pole, he has these highs and lows, but he is in constant motion.
Billy: Whammy! (to customer) Sorry buddy.
Beatie: Have you had people ask if they can take ownership of it?
Billy: Not ownership, but they want to know if it’s for sale. But that could be a problem, I feel like if someone famous all of a sudden that people like more than me wants it, well I might have to deal with that.
Mr X: It’s like moths to the light … now that Billy’s done all the hard work and rescued it, everyone wants it.
Beatie: But it’s at home here.
Billy: Yes perhaps that’s exactly what people don’t want, for it to end up in some fancy place.
Mr X: For one this is public with no charge … the other thing is there’s this weird kinda underlying connection that everyone has to it that you almost forget … because of it being this landmark, that you’re used to seeing … I had forgotten that I lived down at the end of the street and was renting a studio from David (the owner of the Jurassic Museum of Technology) on Benton Way. It was on the corner at the very end, where you can take a street over to Alvarado. It was all gangs and shit back then. But I was telling my ex about the sign, which she had sort of forgotten about, and she goes: “Oh yeah the sign, that was how I always knew it was our street to turn down.” And Billy lived down the street too.
Billy: Yeah when I lived on Benton we’d go by and get a kick out of it.
Mr X: Then when I was talking to David last weekend, I reminded him about the studio and I said, “Remember the sign?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve been following it on Instagram.” So it’s like the sign was a connection point of where you were at any point or time in Silver Lake … like I’m going the right way or I need to turn around. That’s what’s cool about it and then I’ve seen, from just being in the shop at the right time, people coming in and saying: “Oh, is that the sign? We thought it was gone.” One woman said: “I think I’m gonna cry!”
Elaine: And it’s not the artwork per se but it’s this piece of the culture that’s interactive and has this feel of chance, of magic, that’s what made it fun, that it’s interactive and you know that’s the store.
Beatie: I don’t think there could be any better place for it. Particularly because both Billy and the sign are old time Silver Lake / Los Feliz.
Billy: This store started in Silver Lake.
Mr X: What it comes down to, is a sincerity, a passion and an unselfish act … because it all started out from the beginning, because I know Billy, it wasn’t about getting the sign, it was about keeping it safe there the whole time and then when that looked like it may not work, it was about making sure it didn’t get damaged, stolen or fall into (if I might be so bold to say) evil hands …
Billy: The dark side.
Mr X: … where it becomes more of an ownership kind of thing, a marketing tool, rather than a preservation of what it really means and its memory. So in a restaurant or in some sign shop it just becomes another sign. I think there was one advertisement saying the Getty might be interested, but why would anyone be interested in giving it to the Getty? If you know anything about the Getty, they’ve got a giant storage area of stuff that no one’s ever gonna see again and plus, why see it at the Getty when you’ve got to pay money to go there. How is anyone from this area gonna find the time or even care to take the tram up there? It’s not a museum piece, it’s beyond that. It’s sort of a memory
Beatie: With it being here, it connects with a place and a person who’s been celebrating it for decades but also to what this area used to be. It tells the story of ganglands to gentrification. It’s a real Sign of the Times and there’s no better place/person to have it.
Mr X: Had he not been there it would be gone. It would be gone, it would be lost.
Beatie: As would so much culture without this place.
Mr X: Well the name of the store says it all, it’s like the last trading post of the frontier and not just in a merchandise way but in ideas.
Beatie: It’s a cultural trading post.
Mr X: Of course this is all off the record by now. I’m a concerned citizen of the community, not just this community but the community of the marginalised, where corporate America and big businesses like squeezing people out by any means necessary and that’s what has been going on here.
Billy: Beatie came stumbling in here one night … What two years ago, three years ago?
Beatie: Yeah. When we smashed the chihuahuas.
Billy: Yeah, you happened to intervene on a night I was ready to break stuff. What were those hats called that we came up with?
Beatie: The baby t-shirts you thought could be a new kind of hat?
Billy: I can’t believe they didn’t become more successful.
Elaine: One night the power went out on the street. Only our store had power. It was really weird because they didn’t have power anywhere else. A breaker went out on the next block and it was late at night and people were at the bar across the street and Billy was the only person with power, and he goes out front and with a turntable and he’s playing music and he’s giving away candles and it was a whole scene and people loved it. Remember the sideshow when the power went out?
Billy: Yeah, that was fun.
Elaine: That’s what people like about this store, interacting with him, the Billy show and the carnival, it’s a whole sideshow
Beatie: And that community aspect, which is something that’s largely displaced now as many people are substituting that for digital experiences. But the power of physical spaces and what they hold — memories, resonance, history, stories — is really important, and so the fact that something that meant so much to so many people ended up here, in the one place totally connected with its past and preservation and is still around 30 plus years later. Everything about the rescue really was perfect, how serendipitous it was, it was meant to be.
Elaine: And the fact that he’s survived on this strip, not having high-priced items, not having a lot of sales, no advertising.
Beatie: By saving the sign, he was also saving himself and the part of this city that is now endangered.
To learn more about Y-Que Trading Post and to snag a HaFo SaFo screen-printed shirt, head to Etsy. yque.com. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook. And pay them a visit: 1770 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027.
Billy rescued HaFo SaFo on September 5, 2019, where it found its current home at Y-Que Trading Post on September 7, 2019. This piece was written that day.
Beatie Wolfe is a London-born, LA-based artist and innovator who has beamed her music into space, been appointed as a UN Women Role Model for Innovation and held a solo exhibition of her album designs at the V&A Museum. Beatie’s environmental art piece will be at the United Nations Climate Change Conference this Fall. See more at beatiewolfe.com.