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Jay Shells brings Rap Quotes to Atlanta

Artist to celebrate the city’s hip-hop culture with popular site-specific installations

Tuesday April 14, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Jason Shelowitz, known to the art world as Jay Shells, was sitting around one night, listening to slain Harlem rapper Big L, when he caught the feeling. He had a thought so grand in its simplicity that it would eventually take him around the country, with calls to travel the world.


The idea? Street signs with hip-hop lyrics printed on them, hung strategically in the places mentioned in the rhymes. For a culture that’s hyperaware of location, ‘hoods, and hangouts, and whose artists often validate themselves by shouting out their cities (see: Drake and his inexplicable thirst for people to call Toronto “the 6”), it’s not surprising that Shells’ idea has generated loads of attention and acclaim everywhere that he’s touched down.

“The idea was to make the signs look like standard municipal street signs, so that they blend into the landscape,” the New York City native explains. “If I wanted them to stand out I would have made them a wild color, but I didn’t want them to be overly designed.”

Part of the reasoning for that is because when Shells is actively hanging the signs in various locations across the cities he visits, it doesn’t draw much attention. But once they are noticed — which typically comes after Shells has posted his work on social media — the signs are gone in a couple of hours, if that. After all, what hip-hop enthusiast wouldn’t want a sign that read, “Back in Philly we be out in the park/a place called the Plateau is where everybody go ...” and that actually came from Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park hanging in the crib?

With that in mind, Shells doesn’t exactly refer to what he’s doing as regular “street art,” since unlike graffiti for example, he says his work is removed rather quickly and he’s not really vandalizing property. Instead, this project is his contribution to the culture he loves, propelled by the art and design skills he honed throughout the years.

Starting off in New York in March 2013, Shells, who has had art exhibitions all over the world for his work prior to beginning this project, has hung more than 75 signs all over the city. It’s an arduous task that he says typically takes two full days to accomplish in any given town. So far, rappers including Busta Rhymes, Action Bronson, Kanye West, GZA, Slick Rick, and Black Thought have had their lyrics immortalized on Shells’ signs.

He currently has 75 custom-designed signs in Los Angeles, where last year he did an exhibition to fund his travels, and another 22 signs in Philadelphia. This month, he’s headed to Atlanta, commissioned by the producers of the A3C Hip Hop Festival. So don’t be too upset if you miss “the start of somethin’ good” on Headland and Delowe; maybe, as Cool Breeze says on Goodie Mob’s “The Damm,” the next stop is “gonna be Greenbriar Mall.”

“These are significant places,” explains Shells, who also works in paint, acrylic, and, more recently, pyrography. “Everywhere on earth is significant for someone, but the fact that an artist wrote a lyric to mention a place makes it significant not just for that person, but for people in that area, and I think that deserves recognition.”

Shells says he’s disappointed with the overall limiting of hip-hop’s cultural relevance in a mainstream platform. While he’s happy to see that Adam Yauch (aka MCA of the Beastie Boys) has a park named after him in Brooklyn, he points out that the petition to have a street in New York named for the Notorious B.I.G. has been met with negativity.

“Hip-hop is a huge cultural phenomenon — it’s one of the biggest cultures on earth. It’s also one of the most exploited and underappreciated,” he says. “So I’m commemorating these emcees in my own way.”

After Atlanta, Shells is heading to Houston, Chicago, and the Bay Area, saying that he needs at least 20 lyrical mentions to go to a new city. And as for the rhymes that he features on his signs, he isn’t picky, the lyrics just have to mention a specific place — so no “ridin’ dirty on 85, slow takin’ it easy” looking for Shells’ signage because you won’t find it there.

At day’s end, Shell is just about leaving an impression on people who appreciate good hip-hop and its cultural impact.

“People have been collecting regular street signs for decades,” he says. “So I’m just leaving something out there for somebody.”