Singing in the streets: artist connects lyrics with famous spots

When we were in grade school, our natural inclination was to inscribe things — words, symbols, doodles — into our surroundings. Whether it was names, phrases, quotes or random hieroglyphic carvings, inscribing in a permanent place was a way to extend the temporal relationship between our person and our place. Even though many of us may no longer be in the our time-out corners, our initials still are.

Local artist Jay Shells brings this feeling to life through a street art project called Rap Quotes. In a celebration of New York and hip-hop culture, Jay takes lyrics from rap songs that mention New York streets and manufactures signs to post on the streets themselves.

“When you’re on a corner that’s been called out in a rap song, I think it’s cool to know that,” he explained.

Shells puts up signs displaying lyrics that describe the location of the street sign, immortalizing the connection between a master-of-ceremonies and his block.

When Animal, an online art magazine, released a video three weeks ago documenting Jay’s exploits with his first batch of signs, his popularity skyrocketed. Since then, the story has been re-blogged, re-tweeted, and re-shared countless times with coverage from Huffington Post, Metro New York, and Hot97.

But Shells said the great ideas aren’t always his own. He’s taken many recommendations from fans.

“People keep writing to me, ‘Do Biggie, oh you gotta do Biggie!’” Shells laughed while throwing his hands in the air. “No shit, I love Biggie. Send me a fuckin’ lyric!”

While Rap Quotes has garnered by far the most attention, it is not Jay’s first street art project. His past work includes a variety of signs, posters and stencils that he said try to pack the same punch as New York itself — quirky, often funny, and bursting with attitude.

A lot of Jay’s pieces seem to share that common public service theme. Last year, Jay printed out thousands of “Please look out for cyclists” stickers, which he slapped on cab doors and gave out to bike shops. For a while, he was tagging the sides of bodegas with the message “Drink less soda and more water.” Before that, he ran a “Clean Up After Your Dog” campaign, which featured graphics of dogs pooping and a roller of plastic bags for public use.

One subject he’s tried to tackle is sidewalk etiquette. Designed in the exact same style as street signs that might say, “No Parking 4 – 7 p.m.,” they instead exhibit messages like, “Pay attention while walking, your Facebook status update can wait,” or “Pull up your pants, no one wants to see your underwear.”

All of Jay’s signs are well received, but some hit home more than others. He said his “Pull up your pants” sign randomly found success among a mix of schools around the country.

“I was getting emails from administrators asking if they could print my signs to hang in their halls,” Shells said.

Most of Jay’s signs are only up so for so long before curious New Yorkers or disgruntled authorities get their hands on them.

“Of course I wish they would stay up longer but that’s just the way it is. People take them down,” he said.

Not that he lets that bother him. Tools of the trade in hand — spray paint on some days, wrench and bolts on others — Shells continues to roam the city, always vigilant for the next idea.

Daniel Huang is a contributing writer. Email him at cstate@nyunews.com.

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