A controversial billboard on the Tri-State Tollway designed to focus attention on racism on golf courses has been vandalized and will come down only six days after it was put up.
After the billboard was spray-painted with racist messages and a swastika over the weekend, artist Mark Heckman and the billboard company decided the time had come to take it down, even though it was supposed to stay a month.
"The billboard has served its purpose, and I don't want anyone getting hurt," said Heckman, who has parlayed the controversy into morning national talk show appearances for later this week. "So I don't have a problem with the sign being removed."
Tom Carroll, an official of Gannett Outdoor Chicago, the billboard company, said the sign, which advertises the fictitious Afro Country Club, "Where only the ball is white," is slated to come down barring high winds or rain. The billboard, located just north of 83rd Street in south suburban Justice, is visible to northbound tollway traffic.
Heckman, 28, of Grand Rapids, Mich., said he has produced two dozen political billboards in recent years, but this one sparked the strongest reaction by far. "I want to stimulate people with my work, but not to violence." he said.
Since the billboard was put up last Thursday, owners of the public warehouse near the sign, as well as Heckman, have received a steady stream of harassing and threatening telephone calls. Many of the complaints to the billboard company were callers who believed that the country club actually existed, Carroll said.
The vandalism apparently occurred late Saturday night or early Sunday, with the culprits perhaps providing their own ladder to climb the eight feet up to the walkway ladder that is used by workmen to mount the billboard signs, said Justice Police Chief Paul Washich.
In addition to the swastika and the letters KKK, the billboard also was spray-painted with the initials J and M.
By early Monday, work crews from Gannett Outdoor had removed the graffiti and repainted part of the sign.
"It's difficult for me to believe that this could still happen, but that was the whole point of the billboard," Heckman said. "I hope it makes some people think about racism."
Despite the complaints, Heckman and Carroll said they have received many calls from people praising the billboard. Heckman said the work was paid for by an anonymous benefactor in Michigan and placed on the Tri-State, also known as Interstate Highway 294, because a location in downtown Chicago was too expensive.
The tollway billboard cost $3,500 a month. Heckman will receive a rebate for the unused time.
Among Heckma's better known billboards was an AIDS awareness sign displayed in Chicago in 1989. That work featured 2,001 condoms dipped in paint and thrown against a canvas.
Carroll said a "generic" and noncontroversial billboard would go up in place of Heckman's.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.