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When streets signs tell you to walk, yield and stop racism

Street signs dot every city block in the U.S. Without commanding much attention, they serve as a silent but ever-present reminder to live within the rules. Now, an organization is harnessing that authority to create New York City street signs that challenge people to consider their own role in systemic racism.

Displaying messages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement like “White guilt is complacency” and “Your privilege doesn’t need consent,” the signs will appear guerrilla-style along 14th St. in New York City as part of the Art in Odd Places public art project in October.

The signs were designed by students at SUNY Purchase working with the organization Ghana ThinkTank, which was founded in 2006 to address problems in the “developed” world by brainstorming solutions with people in U.S. prisons and other countries including Cuba, Iran and El Salvador. Their messages emerged from street conversations and interviews on how civilians participate in systemic racism, according to Carmen Montoya, an organizer with Ghana ThinkTank.

Street signs with anti-racist messages from Ghana ThinkTank appeared at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival in May. Photo courtesy of Christopher Robbins

The signs are meant as a recognition of the public’s participation in unequal systems, according to Robbins.

The signs originally appeared in New York City during the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival in late May. As the group installed them, several people asked them to put up the signs in their own neighborhoods, according to Christopher Robbins, a Ghana ThinkTank organizer and associate professor of art and design at SUNY Purchase.

The signs use the same materials and graphics that appear on New York City’s municipal signs, which carry the authority of a greater system, Robins said. “A street sign signifies the official voice of the system around you,” he told the NewsHour via email.

Ghana ThinkTank first experimented with street signage in 2011 in a project aimed at addressing alleged police harassment of immigrants. For this project, dubbed “Legal Waiting Zones,” the group responded to complaints of police harassment toward people on Roosevelt Ave. in Queens by putting up posters in English and Spanish that read:

It is OK for you to wait here.
And in all public places.
For a friend, your mom,
or simply because it is too
hot in your apartment.

An effective street sign “should blend in enough to initially be absorbed as something official and sanctioned,” Robbins said. “Once the content has sunk in, a rupture happens.”

Street signs and address markers were originally born of a higher authority’s attempt at control. According to one account, the British army established house numbers across Manhattan during the Revolutionary War “to establish military control.” Street signs and house numbers were rare before the war and unregulated until the New York Common Council passed a law requiring house numbers in 1793.

As New York grew, street signs became a common denominator across the city, a visual sign of the social rules and designations that govern the public. Their design and location have also been regulated and re-regulated frequently, leaving the mark of multiple administrations upon the city.

Street signs with anti-racist messages from Ghana ThinkTank appeared at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival in May. Photo courtesy of Christopher Robbins

The signs highlight the “difference between the law as it is written and the law as it is applied,” Robbins said. Photo courtesy of Christopher Robbins

Originally, street signs and names of businesses were etched or painted into the sides of buildings. In the late 1800s, street signs themselves were works of art, boasting ornate Victorian design. From the 1910s to the 1930s, simple blue signs with white lettering became more common. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of those signs were traded for utilitarian dark yellow signs with black lettering.

The 1980s brought more changes still, when many existing signs were replaced with green ones, created by the city in an attempt to be consistent with federal highway signage. And in 1989, the city began installing brown street signs with white lettering to designate historical districts.

Confused? You’re not the only one. In 2012, the city changed the font and letter case of street signs, a move to make the signs more legible, a project years in the making. Parking signs, in particular, have long irked New Yorkers with multiple sets of elaborate, often redundant instructions per sign, which the city recognized in 2013 with an attempt to streamline the signs.

Street signs with anti-racist messages from Ghana ThinkTank appeared at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival in May. Photo courtesy of Christopher Robbins

Photo courtesy of Christopher Robbins

Street signs have served as a medium for artists in the past. In March 2013, artist Jay Shells created street signs using rap lyrics that mentioned specific locations in New York City and placed them at those locations. Killy Kilford, a British artist, installed inspirational messages such as “Listen to your heart” on street signs around the city in Nov. 2013.

Though they use the visual language of regulation, street signs also serve as a call to action, holding the public accountable for their participation in a system, Robbins said. “Our own action and inaction is part of the cumulative process that helps extend these unfair systems,” he said. “I hope the ‘official-ness’ of the signs points to that often overlooked connection.”

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