Ken Miller liked to tell about the time a stranger brought him a key lime cheesecake.
“He knocked on the door and when I answered he just handed me this pink bakery box and said, ‘My wife and I love your signs. Keep up the good work!’” Miller recalled.
It happened occasionally. People would see the sometimes-angry homemade signage (“Ducey is killing us again!” and “One World, One Race, One Love”) Miller placed in the front yard of his midtown home, and they’d stop by to cheer him on. “One guy saw me out front and handed me $5,” he said with a laugh. “He said, ‘This is for materials!’ I’ve gotten gift cards to Fry’s and to local cafes. People drive by and honk and wave, or they stop, write down my address, and send me thank-you notes.”
The whole political yard sign thing started, Miller thought, after the 2020 presidential election.
“I took down my election signs and started putting up messages about the pandemic. I made a nice solid plywood sign where I could change the number of people who’d died every day. Underneath it, I wrote ‘Good job, Trump!’”
For a while, he had a 5-foot-tall skeleton waving at passersby. His Black Lives Matter sign came and went. Complaints aimed at Governor Ducey and U.S. Representative Paul Gosar were perennial.
People asked Miller why he posted signs. “Somebody’s got to say something,” was his explanation. “I drive all over the city and no one’s expressing themselves in signs or on bumper stickers. I want people to know that there are others who think like they do.”
Miller grew up in Detroit and joined the Navy in 1968, right out of high school. “I did that for four years,” he said of his military career. “You ever see Apocalypse Now? I was in a boat in Vietnam, got the Bronze Star, all that kind of stuff.”
After the war, he worked as a fisherman in Florida. There wasn’t a lot of culture there, he said. “And, you know, two failed marriages in less than five years, holy Christ. I had to get out of there.”
He moved to San Francisco, where he worked for interior decorators. “I’m a woodcarver by trade,” he said. “I taught myself. I did all the crown molding in Ann Getty’s house. But then after about 20 years, the dot-com thing happened and priced me out of the city.”
Miller moved to Santa Cruz, where he built sailboats and learned to travel on the ocean. He gigged as a blues musician, came out as gay in 1996, and began dabbling in standup comedy.
“I was billed as a gay comic, and my line was ‘Laugh when you call me faggot!’” he said. This was around the time Miller began making his own bumper stickers for the back of his 1985 Toyota Corolla.
“It was always something political or religious. Then I moved out here and the pandemic happened, and I kind of expanded the bumper sticker idea to my front yard.”
His neighbors have been supportive, but not everyone appreciated Miller’s freedom of speech. His signs have been stolen and defaced. About a year ago, people started driving over the curb and through his yard in an attempt to destroy the signs.
“I have a bunch of them with tire tracks on them,” he said. “I fix them and reuse them. Usually, they drive through the yard at night, but one afternoon around 4:30 a van drove through and then careened back into traffic. What in the fuck?”
Miller has placed signs warning of security cameras, and recently built a low fence of 4-by-4s to discourage drivers from plowing through his yard. His daughter, an attorney, advised him against putting nails out to flatten a visitor’s tires.
He used to get angry when a sign was stolen or driven over.
“I finally decided I wasn’t going to let them get to me. Now my attitude is ‘I’ll keep putting the signs up, and you keep knocking them down. Have fun.’ I don’t want to join the madding crowd.”
Miller plans to move to New York in the spring, to be near his daughter and new grandchild. There, he won’t have a front yard from which to send public messages.
“But I’ll probably hang signs from my window,” he said. “It’s important to let people know they’re not alone in their beliefs, that there are others out there who feel the same way they do.”