The things you see out of the corner of your eye are an essential part of a city's identity. All the millions of puzzling, peripheral details are what gives a community its unique character. When you're out whizzing from one place to the next, all sorts of curiosities make the briefest of claims on your attention and then get erased by the next frame. Who has time to look in the rearview mirror?
Last summer I started noticing strange little hand-painted signs hung high up on telephone poles around my neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The first batch I encountered was along Xerxes Avenue just north of Highway 62. I saw one flash by on the outskirts of my vision, and then, a moment later, I saw another. The first one, I thought, said, "Give Up Coke." The second was more verbose, and by the time I braked, it was behind me. I went around the block and trolled past again. The second sign comprised several segments of jagged painted wood and was nailed perhaps 15 feet up the pole. It read, "As Long As It Gets Said, It Doesn't Matter Who Says It."
That was pretty curious. Such a project, I figured, would require a ladder of decent size and a clandestine spirit. It seems to me now that there were others as well, that I encountered these mysterious signs here and there in the neighborhood for a number of weeks in late August.
There's always a lot of what sociologist Otto Neurath called the "visual hustle" in the city, and telephone poles have long served as the most democratic of public bulletin boards, yet in recent years it seems like a lot of the traditional poster guerrillas have essentially conceded the space to the lost-pet and Lose Weight Get Paid people. At any rate you don't really seem to encounter signs like these in the city, or perhaps you just don't notice them. Their appearance of age and mystery and their earnest language suggested the long rural roads of the South, where you're likely to encounter similarly constructed signs, usually expressing concern for the traveler's soul. Such signs are an iconic part of that culture, and their essential plainness--and plainspoken, almost menacing messages--give them a strange authority in such an isolated setting.
These signs I'm talking about are a different story. I later drove by the same spot on several different occasions and failed to notice them. I put them out of my mind. Then, one day, there they were again. And later they disappeared. I drove around one day looking for them and got skunked. A short time later, though, other, similar signs turned up on telephone poles along 50th Street between Abbott and York. The new signs were quiet, cryptic confrontations: "You Don't Have to Wear Make Up." "Once You Know You Can Never Go Back." "Do You Have Self Control?" "Are You Motivated By Passion or $?" And best of all, "You Are Not Alone."
I was truly curious by now, and so one afternoon I called Gallery 360, which had one of the signs hanging on a post directly outside. Laurie Meurett, the art director there, admitted that she had noticed a lot of curiosity about the signs, but said she could not shed any light on their creators.
"There's an outsider-art, Zen-guerrilla thing about it that stirs up conversation," she said. "It's kind of mysterious and fun that you don't know who's doing it."
Knowing that the iconography of street signs has fascinated photographers from Walker Evans to Robert Frank, I also called Stuart Klipper, a photographer who lives in the middle of the neighborhood where the signs have appeared. Initially Klipper professed that he had not noticed the messages, but he was kind enough to go out and poke around at my request. He called me back a short time later. "Oh, sure, I've seen them before," he said. "They kind of slip in and out of consciousness, but they're perplexing and provocative little bits of public inquiry."
I later made random queries around various neighborhood businesses and no one else seemed to have noticed the signs. Surely, I thought, someone must have noticed them, because some of them had clearly been taken down. I eventually called city council member Barret Lane, in whose 13th Ward the signs have appeared, and Lane seemed as perplexed as everyone else. "No one has brought it up to me," he said. He promised to investigate the matter and get back to me. Candra Edwards from Lane's office later called me back and said, "I've checked with several sources and nobody has heard anything about these signs. Even with a positive message, they would probably be considered advertising and would be taken down."