In the middle of August, street artist and graphic designer Jay Shells made it down to Philly in a rental car from his native New York. With him, he had 22 new street signs from his ongoing Rap Quotes project. The project is what it sounds like: Jay Shells (government name: Jason Shelowitz) takes a rap lyric that names a specific geographical spot, designs it to be printed on a fire-engine-red placard and posts it at that place. He’s done about 160 of these so far, in New York, L.A. and, most recently, Philly.
Street signage is his best-known medium. Three years ago, he installed signs to prod fellow New Yorkers into having better “metropolitan etiquette.” “Pay Attention While Walking,” one read; another pointed out that “Your Facebook Status Update Can Wait.” For the past year and a half, he’s been marking places by their hip-hop mentions. How does Shelowitz pick his Rap Quotes? A precise location is one requirement. The rapper doesn’t need to be on the radio, but should turn up a “healthy Google result.” If he senses a quote could bring back dark memories for the neighbors, he’ll consider leaving that line alone. But that’s about it.
“I don’t discriminate based on artists that I like or that I don’t like,” says Shelowitz. “The range is just a natural thing: All of the emcees that shouted out a specific place that I was able to track down.”
A photographer documents each installation as soon as it’s done; the sign most likely won’t be there for long. A street art fan, a neighbor or patrolman might snatch it. To start, Shelowitz sourced all the rhymes on his own, but before his second go-round he invited ideas on social media.
“When I originally did it in New York, I knew that they would be stolen,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Let me just do this anyway for fun.’ But the idea was to try to get them to become brass plaques bolted into the sidewalk or like Hollywood Walk of Fame, just actual custom tiles … Maybe once I finish the first round of all the cities and it gets more traction, it would be time to try to get it done.”
(Photo by Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
The selection of quotes in this latest batch is impressive for its reach and variety. The two farthest signs are about 14 miles away. Shelowitz completed them in a workday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. He got in Philadelphia’s downtown and ended outside of Holmesburg prison.
“When I publicly announced that I was going to Philly, I got an email within a week from a guy named Chase Harrison who sent me like 30 sets of lyrics from Philadelphia,” Shelowitz says. “Obviously I was elated.”
Harrison, who works in marketing and writes about music for No Clue, recalls that when he first read about Shelowitz coming to Philly, he had around seven lyrics off the top of his head.
“From there, it just became sort of a fun scavenger hunt, looking through different lyrics and listening to a ton of rap, which isn’t too different than what I do on a typical day,” says Harrison.
(Photo by Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
“Often for older songs that might be talking about something negative, when you go there now, which in many cases is 20 years after the fact, it’s a much different place … ” says Shelowitz. “It brings all types of conversations about gentrification, and history, and everything. So I think [the project] has evolved into something more.”
Not too many Philadelphians engaged with him, though, he says. A man came out of his house, “in socks,” on 23rd and Tasker when he saw Shelowitz opening his step ladder to ask what was happening, but seemed satisfied to know that it was street art. He quickly turned around and went back inside.
Rap Quotes’ next stop is Atlanta in October. Have any good quotes in mind? Tweet them to @jayshells.
Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at CNN.com, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.