John Hood: Dine’ Artist, USMC Combat veteran’s Art is in Smithsonian

By Roy Cook

Following John Hood’s service in the Marine Corps he attended San Diego State University. He has been employed by Caltrans as an artist and designer for most of his professional career. National recognition is being acknowledged following an assignment to create the undocumented immigration road sign.

Peter Liebhold, a curator for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, said the museum wanted to acquire an example of John Hood’s art in the presentation role of road sign for its permanent exhibit on transportation, which opened a year and a half ago, but curators found the 5-by-7-foot sign too large for the allotted space.

The Smithsonian settled on a photo of the sign instead. It hangs one floor down from the original 1813 Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem. "It transcends its local history," Liebhold said. "Its importance is as a metaphor for undocumented immigration into the United States."

The sign is intended to warn drivers they might encounter people frantically darting across lanes of traffic as they tried to evade border security. The job landed on the desk of Caltrans graphic artist John Hood in the late 1980s. He was asked to design an image that, in the blink of an eye, would alert drivers to the unexpected sight of pedestrians in their headlights.

Before Hood began drawing the sign, he and his supervisors met with Highway Patrol officers and saw photos of accident scenes. What got to him most were the deaths that involved families. "Graphically, I wanted to show a family," said Hood, who lives in San Diego. He chose to include a pigtailed girl, rather than a boy, because "there is something about a little girl running across with her parents that we are more affected by."

At first he drew detailed figures, with faces that showed "a little bit of fright." But, in the end, Hood and his supervisors decided on a silhouette. "When you are looking through headlights, that is what you see," Hood said, "an outline of the image itself."

As he sketched, Hood tried to imagine the despair that might drive such a family across the border and onto a forbidding foreign highway. He drew from his own experience fighting in Vietnam, where he had seen families run for their lives as villages were attacked. He remembered stories his Navajo parents had told him about ancestors who died trying to escape as U.S. soldiers marched them onto reservations.

John Hood was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. He is named after an uncle who died as Prisoner of War in the Pacific and an uncle was a Navajo Marine Code Talker, the late Mr. James Nahkai, Jr. John graduated from a Bureau if Indian Affairs (B.I.A.) boarding school Wingate High School and as a student he Rodeoed riding bareback broncos and bulls on the Navajo Reservation. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps while still attending high school. Did a tour in Vietnam as combat infantryman in the late 60's and early 70's. “While serving with the First Marine Division in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam from 1 June 1970 to 21 March 1971, lance Corporal Hood performed his
duties in a exemplary manner.” He is decorated for his military service with the AWARD OF THE NAVY ACHIEVEMENT MEDAL with COMBAT “V”.

The drawing was finished in a week. Even without faces, the characters conveyed a sense of urgency in their flight. "It doesn't just mean they are running across the freeway," Hood said. "It means they are running from something else as well. I think it's a struggle for a lot of things, for opportunities, for freedom."

The first signs were unveiled in September 1990 at Camp Pendleton. With a new purpose John was again in close proximity to the Marine Corps.

Hood, the Caltrans artist, a modest man by nature, didn't set out to create anything of the sort, just a road sign to help save lives. Over the years, he has watched the transformation of his simple creation into souvenir, protest art, icon and metaphor with a mix of amazement and amusement, wishing only that some of the money being made from it today were generating funds for public safety. Hood earns no royalties. He's lost track of his original sketches. His wife filed them away, but he's not sure where. Not that it bothers him. His road sign, or at least some version of it, isn't hard to find.

"That was my baby," he said. "It has its own life now."