Art in the Streets — The Happy Foot/Sad Foot (1986-2019)

For more than three decades, the Happy Foot/Sad Food sign has loomed over the intersection of Benton Way and Sunset Boulevard. Although designed as an advertisement for Sunset Foot Clinic, it became a symbol of the Mideast Los Angeles hinterland between Silver Lake and Echo Park.

The Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign reminds me a bit of a giant thaumatrope… except that it spins far too slowly to create the illusion which made that Victorian toy popular. On one side is the happy foot — smiling happily and wearing nothing but high-tops and white gloves. On the other side is the sad foot — propped up with crutches, shoeless and gloveless, the big toe on its “head” dressed with medical gauze.

Perhaps a more obvious comparison is to the sock and buskin — the ancient symbols of comedy and tragedy associated with Greek theatre. Happy Foot (wearing nothing but a smile, high tops, and white gloves) is Thalia — the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. Sad Foot (propped up by crutches, eyes bloodshot, naked but for the dressing on its big toe) is Melpomene — the muse of tragedy and chorus.

The building in which Sunset Foot Clinic is located was constructed in 1985 — its primary tenant is a Comfort Inn. Other businesses have come and gone over the years, although for whatever reason, they’re usually Asian restaurants. In recent years, they’ve nearly all been Thai. Gone are Hong Kong Lee Fat, Soon Fah, Thai OrangeVegan House, and Issan Classic Thai. Currently present is Khun Mae Ploy Thai Cuisine.

Happy Foot Sad FootThe sign’s structure was designed by architect Melvin Green. The clinic was founded by podiatrist Gary Jamison. The permit for the sign was issued on 26 December 1986 — the Feast of Saint Stephen. No doubt a coincidence, this is nevertheless the holiday on which “Good King Wenceslas,” the Duke of Bohemia, is said to have walked in the snow on the holiday to give alms to the poor. His footprints miraculously stayed warm and his page literally followed in them.

Over the years, the sign inspired all manner of arts and crafts, including pillows, Halloween costumes, tattoos, GIFs, enamel pins, and T-shirts. It has appeared in literary works such as and Jonathan Lethem‘s You Don’t Love Me Yet and David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King. It has inspired music from the Happy Foot Sad Foot Chorus, Eels‘ song, “Sad Foot Sign,” and the video for Yacht‘s “Hard World.” My favorite, though, is a piece of digital art by Machine Project titled Happy Foot vs. Sad Foot.

 

As someone who has seen my own art appropriated and reproduced by realtors, developers, restaurateurs, and the local news without credit or compensation, it disappoints me but doesn’t surprise me that no one seems to have asked who designed the Happy Foot/Sad Foot.

The answer, if anyone is curious, is that it was created by one of Gary Jamison’s sons, Russell, then in elementary school. Russell, appropriately, now works in animation. His work has appeared on The Ricky Gervais Show, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Cosmos, and other series. He lives in Burbank — the “animation capital of the world.”

The clinic’s doctors of podiatric medicine have come and gone — or are going. Gary Jamison retired in 1997. Thomas Lim and Schlomo Schmuel are moving to a larger space in the northeastern corner Wilshire Center. The sign was removed on 5 September 2019.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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