Parking the wrong way on McDonald Street in Taco Town for a few minutes, I felt compelled to get out of my car to photograph a funny little piece of renegade public art. I was sure such unofficial signage would soon disappear. In a hurry, I turned around and a man confronted me in his car, going the right way. “Hey,” he said, “that’s my art, you know.” Admitting to only a pseudonym (2-11), he said a few choice words about the state of Atlanta culture, adding that the sign’s been up for more than two years!
An abundance of graphic visuals are strewn about the real, mainstream world that go generally underappreciated as art. It may be a good thing that the audience for this kind of art—those who drive around town barely looking beyond the road and beyond the literal—finds no offense in commercial public signage. This is an entirely tolerated plane, regardless of the most audacious placement. But, paradoxically, this same audience distrusts anything as conspicuous as public art or anything in the style of classic graffiti. Such a fine conundrum reveals a place of great opportunity for artists looking to make free renegade works that communicate outside the gallery. The spaces in between these two visual end marks—actual advertising and officially prescribed public art—are indeed fertile places for contemporary practice.
It’s nothing new for artists to harvest fine art from vernacular signage and graphic design. These prolific sources are endlessly inspiring for those who crack their mundane surfaces. Infamous Pop artists daringly painted GE logos, Campbell’s soup cans, and billboard collages on canvases and sold these sarcastic replicas in galleries like candy. That was the 1960s.
Visually, technologically, and legally, we’re in a new graphic era. We now have video billboards, branding campaigns, image ownership, aggressive pop-up windows, and blinking websites. We have programmable LED lights and sound technology, even attempts at undercover corporate stenciling. But the simplest of advertising—public signage—still litters our public spaces in historic layers. This work is a font of unconscious communication for anyone who is willing to look.
I’m particularly nostalgic for handmade signs (both good and bad). I like those made by individual hands and also appreciate small business graphics, especially for their willingness to play with language—their refreshing fearlessness of puns and cliché. The trendy yet unimaginative signage of today’s intown strip mall plazas, like those found at the Edgewood shopping center on Moreland Avenue, are rather cold. Instead of valuing an opportunity to create unique expressive signage with a lot of variety, these mall settings (“urban renewal” style) provide crude allotments of organized, lighted spaces looming at a calculated height above the traffic. These are generic blocks where logos are just stuck on and centered—Best Buy, Borders, Great Clips, Sprint, Target, Starbucks, and so on. These are not signs for human neighborhoods; they are stamps of authority and visual conformity. Once passé, these types of branded signs, bruised by age and use, will no doubt be collectors’ items and beautiful expressions of the ephemerality of empire! I cannot wait.
In the meantime, I wish we would take more pride in the signage of the past. For it is only when a sign ages or is placed out of context that its true artfulness starts to come through. If this diversity of signage were to be welcomed into our increasingly corporate and suburban public spaces, we might temper the current style that dominates without tolerance for much else.
Embracing such graphic diversity would situate our locale in a much larger historical and social context, and make our place feel more authentic. The old signs wearing away on unpopular corners are temporary artistic jewels free and open for passersby to enjoy. Savoring them could be an inexpensive Band-Aid for the otherwise astounding lack of preservation in our city. (Signs are much easier to preserve than buildings.) I suppose we could begin by learning to love these old-fashioned, decaying commercial remnants.
In some fantastic future, there could be public art devoted entirely to refurbishing or creatively replicating signs of the past. Public art could incorporate variations of historical signs but with the omitted words, or with new artistic phrases. There could be such a thing as public sign curation or public sign parks where old signs and billboards go to die. How about all those empty sign structures along the roadside? There’s so much designated space for expression that’s goes to waste. What if these spaces were declared fair game for artists to repurpose?
The tradition of public signage itself goes deep into the past and even beyond verbal language. For example, 8th century kanban (Japanese for “signboard” or “billboard”) were prototypes of corporate symbols that were regulated by law. Some merchants prominently displayed specially made art objects as 3D kanban, and sometimes only an object hung, without words, at the street entrances of small businesses. (This strategy was especially successful for customers who were illiterate commoners.) Now kanban are pricey collectors’ items. Real signs make great art!
Signage is a proven medium for public artistic communication. Outside graffiti and tagging, there is remarkably little use of signmaking as conscious art. I think it’s time we establish the rights of artists and individuals (not just governments and the advertising industry) to use signage as a public medium. Until then, I hope there will be an increase in playful and subversive signage on our streets.