From a young age, the image of traditional street signs is tied to a reaction in developing brains – even children that aren’t able to read yet can tell that a red octagon means “stop” and a green traffic light means “go.” While this makes for excellent safety habits in these same young children, age and repetition can cause the true impact of these signs to fade into the background for adults. Cities are stepping up with a unique solution, responding to the gradual muting of these messages by handing over street signs to artists for inspired, unexpected makeovers.
Honk Honk Haikus
One of the early adopters of the artist-as-urban-planner, New York made headlines last year with an unusual series of brightly-colored traffic signs that emphasized concepts like bike lane etiquette and the importance of crosswalks. Using a palette of sorbet neons and smart, witty haikus about traffic just below, each of artist John Morse’s creations helps deliver a message to some of the most harried pedestrians and drivers in the nation. While these tongue-in-cheek takes might never entirely replace their more commonplace black and yellow brethren in New York City, they do provide an excellent reminder that tends to stay with the viewer.
Across the country, an LA artist named Rebecca Lowry is posting poetry for poetry’s sake. Using colors and fonts more suited to the stern regulations and warnings found on street signs, Lowry instead crafts sublime little poems that catch their readers off guard. One such sign eloquently requests company for a lonely autumn evening, looking at a glance like any other informative street sign. These interesting installments, found throughout West Hollywood, are a reminder to stop and consider what is being viewed, an encouragement to digest as much as consume the words on the street signs we follow each day.
While some street sign transformations are sanctioned by local officials, others are done on the sly by creative spirits that some call artists and others call vandals. These alterations can be as drastic as installing a new sign made to resemble an official one, or as simple as the addition of a few vinyl stickers to add a funny twist to a familiar icon. A group of artists calling themselves TrustoCorp has secretly installed signs in a handful of city locales, admonishing passerby to adhere to the “Obesity Zone” they’re passing through, or informing them that there is “No Snitching Allowed” in the immediate vicinity. These signs use red, white, black, and yellow schemes to blend in as official-looking until they’re examined more closely. Typically, these signs are removed fairly quickly after they’re discovered, making them an interesting temporary art show in the interim.
As metropolitan areas grow more visually cluttered with statements and rules printed on signs, an artistic twist – sanctioned or not – can be a real breath of fresh air. The antidote to some distraction may be as simple as a larger sign or brighter paint, but a complete overhaul at the hands of an artist can turn a simple street sign into something that makes a truly lasting impact on everyone.