We are huge fans of hip-hop and our current obsession is with a New York artist named Jay. (No, not that one.) Well, ok, that one, too. But we’re talking about the stellar street artist Jason “Jay Shells” Shelowitz, who is dotting the streets of New York and L.A. with a sign installation called “Rap Quotes”.
His bright red street signs display quotes from iconic hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, Notorious B.I.G., MF Doom and Eazy E to name a few, and are placed in the specific location the artists rap about, such as the corner of Lewis and 21st or outside the Staples Center. If you’re a rap fan and you stumble across one of his signs, you’ll know you’re standing on a hip-hop landmark. And it will make you feel pretty friggin’ hip.
Jay back in the day
Jay Shells has been an artist as long as he can remember. “I just never put down my crayons,” he says. He went to school for fine art in upstate New York and fell in love with printmaking. His professor suggested he opt for a career in graphic design if he wanted to make money in the art world. So after college he did just that, and headed to Pratt to become an expert in graphic design.
After Pratt he worked several jobs with print shops and agencies. But there was one gig in particular that changed his life—working for graphic design God Milton Glaser. “I was there for a year, and I was their longest-running intern,” he says. “I learned more there than I ever did in school.”
After learning the biz from Milton, Jay started his own company, which he still operates out of his home studio in New York taking on various design projects while continuing his fine artwork on the side. He draws his inspiration for his art from the city itself.
“New York inspires me,” he says. “I love other cities. I love to travel. But there is no other place like New York. It’s full of beauty, it’s full of ugly, and it’s full of everything in between. There is nothing more inspiring to me than New York.”
It was a sign
Jay’s first public art campaign called Subway Etiquette gained national attention.
“The idea came from riding the train and noticing people’s bad manners and extremely antisocial behaviors,” he says. “I wanted to do something about it. I thought it would be funny to create rules, and make them look like the normal subway advisories.”
His idea caught on quickly with subway passengers, and soon the signs started to pop up everywhere on social media, with commuters snapping pictures and posting them. People all over the world were “liking” and tweeting the photos left and right, and soon his sign became famous.
“I think people embraced it because it says what people are thinking, but no one ever brought it the attention it needed,” he says. “I just did it in a funny way.”
So, what next?
After his subway success, Jay admits there was a lot of pressure when people started asking him, “what’s next?” He wasn’t sure he could duplicate it.
His next few projects were on a much smaller scale, but resonated equally well with city dwellers. He created hilarious oversized posters reminding New York dog owners to pick up after their pups, with biodegradable bags and all. The clever campaign was once again a hit. Then he started hammering up metal street signs to address urban etiquette issues like saggy pants and cigarette-butt-flicking. Many of his messages struck a nerve, such as, “Pull up your pants, no one wants to see your underwear”, “Don’t flick your butts” and “Pay attention while walking, your Facebook status update can wait.” He only created a handful signs, but they made a big impact.
Jay decided it was time to take a break from telling people how to behave. He started his most successful project to date, and the reason we fell in love with his creativity and contribution, his street sign installation called “Rap Quotes”, which was spawned from his love of hip-hop music.
“A lot of artists rap about their block,” he says. “When you’re on a corner that’s called out in a song, it’s cool to know that. I wanted to put something on these streets and corners so people knew they were rap landmarks.”
Jay’s idea was to take the quotes, print them on to street signs and put them at the exact location the lyric called out. For example, Warren G’s quote, “So I hooks a left on 2-1 and Lewis, some brothers shooting dice so I said ‘let’s do this,'” which can be seen on the corner of Lewis and 21st.
Jay called on friends and fellow rap fans to help him dig up some lyrics.
“Within three days I had 30 different quotes, so I got started,” he says.
With his first batch of signs in tow, he went around Harlem and other quotable New York neighborhoods and started hammering. He figured the signs would most-likely get stolen, but he was cool with them becoming collectors’ items. His friends from Animal New York documented his journey around the city, and soon the video went viral. When he finished up in NYC, he took his art to the streets of Los Angeles.
People have embraced the project, because whether you are a rap enthusiast or not, his art has the power to make you feel like you are part of hip-hop history when you find yourself standing at one of the locations.
It seems like such a simple idea. One of those that leaves you wondering, “why didn’t I think of that?” But Jay knows that feeling all too well.
“I learned something long ago, the hard way,” he says. “If you have a good idea, you have to execute it immediately, because chances are, the minute you have the idea someone else is having it. It could be on the other side of the world, but ideas seem to come to different people at the same time. Then it’s a race to get it done first.”
That’s a Rap
Jay’s street art gets people smiling, laughing and talking. He hopes he’s giving other creatives inspiration to get their work out in front of people, rather than having it crumpled up in the trash or tacked up above their desks.
If you want to be part of his project, Jay is is always open for suggestions and on the look out for new rap quotes. “Anyone can reach out to me through my website, and I thrive off of feedback,” he says. “I never put anything out there with out bouncing it around.”
Photo Credit: Aymann Ismail of ANIMAL