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The writing on the wall

Sam Jonscher schools you on the fourth pillar of hip-hop

Photo: Jennifer Yiu
Photo: Jennifer Yiu
Photo: Jennifer Yiu


After he schooled New Yorkers on etiquette via cheeky but official-looking signs posted on the New York Subway, artist Jay Shells is counterfeiting city signs once again. Armed with a camera, nails and a map, Shells took to the streets of NYC to honour the places of rap legend in his newest project, ‘Rap Quotes.’

Shells created semi-official red parking signs that quote site-specific rap lyrics and then installed them in the places the lyrics mentioned, making an unofficial walking tour of New York rap folklore. Accompanied by culture mag Animal, Shells hit the streets with his new, and very illegal, signage. They honour the likes of Mos Def, Jay-Z, Kanye, RA the Rugged Man, Jeru the Damaja, CL Smooth, and GZA, and breach the length of New York’s hip-hop history.

When asked what inspired him, Shells told Animal, “I love hip-hop and it’s cool to know that you are somewhere that was called out in a song.” Hip-hop is a genre born from folklore and place is a big part of that. Hip-hop is territorial. “A lot of rappers [have their] block” Shells says. He’s bringing that to life by pairing the real world with the places of legend. Rappers are bigger than life and so are their lyrics. He’s pulling them to earth and making them tangible.

Legend was key for Shells when he came up with the idea. The artist told New York Daily News that these spots are “really specific locations, a place where you could put a brass plaque in the ground and say, ‘This happened here.’…That’s the reason I did the project. For that feeling for someone that might be walking by, and that person didn’t know that where they’re standing – that particular point – is mentioned in a song.”

To a passing rap nerd, the signs are an awesome tribute to a culture they love and are a part of, an ode to heroes present and past. To your average passerby, though, he’s telling people that they are on sacred ground, reminding outsiders of the intertwined identities of New York City and hip-hop culture, and how the two have shaped each other. Hip-hop is a prominent character in New York just as New York is a prominent character in hip-hop. Shells wanted to create elegies for rap history and put these places of rap myth on the map.

How long the signs will stay, nobody knows. Shells admitted to Animal,  “I don’t care if people take them, I would take them, I hope people take them … But fuck it, it’s my gift to you, take ‘em.”