Rappin’ in the streets
TONY Castillo skateboarded down Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles as he had for more than two years, but on one December morning he noticed something new.
Clasped to the streetlight pole in front of the sneaker store Flight Club, a bright red sign with white text stared him in the face. Though it had the look of a standard street sign, it offered no instructions on parking, driving or walking. Instead it displayed a rap lyric that made reference to the very spot Castillo had just blown past.
“Bun B the OG like ’ 95 Air Max / Neon green outta Flight Club off Fairfax.”
Hours later, the 25-year-old from the Venice, California, area found himself sweeping in front of his store next door and gravitating toward the sign again. He set his fingers to work twisting off the nuts and pushing hard on the braces to pop out the bolts. After about “a cigarette and a half”, Castillo held one of his most treasured pieces of street art.
“I can see the energy the artist put into it,” he said. “This is some really thoughtful stuff.”
Artist Jason Shelowitz (also known as Jay Shells) installed 45 of the 46 signs he had designed for Los Angeles County in December, but since then he believes all have disappeared.
This writer searched for 19 and found only fragments of one. A spokesman for the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services said it is illegal to post signs on public property without a permit, but the department has no record of removing any of the signs.
Some signs have been taken by street-art enthusiasts like Castillo, and at least one quoted artist took his sign for himself. Rappers including Murs, Action Bronson and Lupe Fiasco have given big ups to the project via social media, sometimes posting pictures of their sign on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Shelowitz said he plans to return to Los Angeles soon to put up six new signs around town. Gallery 1988 on Melrose Avenue plans to exhibit limited edition signs and photos of signs starting in April.
“I was thinking (the signs) would be a hidden gift for people who pay attention to their surroundings,” Shelowitz said. “I wanted it to be something where if you happened to see it, you’d be like, ‘That’s ... awesome!’ – and just take a minute.”
Growing up in the suburbs of New York, he was surrounded by music; he and his friends drove into the city to see live hip-hop and as he got older, some became DJs and producers. “Never quiet,” he said. “Always on.”
Years later, in his home studio on the Upper East Side, Big L’s track Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous started playing one day. The song warns against late-night trips to a park at the corner of West 139th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York. Shelowitz contemplated the lyric, and the seed for the project took root.
“I think I just realized at that moment – I had never been there,” he said. And when he arrived, “I just thought it would be so cool to mark that corner with the lyric.”
Soon he was sending mass emails and solicitations on social media asking for any rap lyric that mentioned a very specific location. After the suggestions rolled in, he put up more than 50 signs in New York, and months later, he carted 46 signs to Los Angeles during a holiday visit.
Shelowitz took to Twitter in late December 2013 to send out pictures of each sign’s location, weeks after he put them up.
But by then, the scavenger hunt had already begun, and most of the signs were gone.
Anwar Carrots, 23, took it upon himself to steal his own sign.
Carrots, who asked to be identified only with the fictitious last name he uses professionally, showed up at a friend’s listening party at Diamond Supply Co several weeks ago and was immediately greeted by chatter about his sign.
“What quote?” he wondered, so a friend took him a few steps outside. There he saw words he had rapped at age 17 “just for fun” with his friend Casey Veggies.
The sign was in front of Diamond because Shelowitz had mistakenly written “Diamond” instead of “coppin”.
“I kind of freaked out,” said Carrots, who helps run a clothing and management company. “I’m not a rapper ... the lyrics are off. (And) I had seen those quotes when I go to New York sometimes, so I was like, ‘This is legendary.’” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Signs of life: artist Jason ‘Jay Shells’ Shelowitz with some of his rap quote signs. He conceived of a project to mark locations mentioned in rap lyrics in New york and Los angeles with signboards quoting the lyrics. — MCT photos
Tony Castillo stands at the entrance of Fight Club, on Fairfax Street in Los angeles, holding a rap quote sign by Shelowitz.