In his book "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Future of Memory" (first published in 1997 and in a revised and updated edition in 2008), critic and urban historian Norman Klein chronicles the lost places of the Southland as remembered by the displaced people who once populated these bygone neighborhoods. "This is their imaginary map of community life under fire," the CalArts professor writes, "while the world around them is being systematically erased." Klein is one of an esteemed number of theorists and critics to comment on L.A.'s peculiar proclivity for erasing its own history. As he, Mike Davis, Frederic Jameson, and Reyner Banham (among many others) have chronicled, the city's habit of erasure is the result of a cocktail of causes both concrete and ephemeral, ranging from inequitable and prejudicial housing practices to the distinctly Angeleno taste for bombastic reinvention. When Neil Young played a four-night stand at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre in early April, he remarked that he had once lived on the very site of the theater, on a stretch of Orchid Street that was destroyed to make way for the behemoth Hollywood and Highland mall complex. Life in L.A. requires an exhausting combination of vigilant remembrance and carefree forgetting that has inspired many of the twentieth century's most indelible representations of the city, from the sinister landscape of Joan Didion's "Play It As It Lays" to David Hockney's bright, empty swimming pools. Now a new artist has unfurled his own map of our amnesiac town: Jay Shells, the New York-based public installation artist currently taking the world of street art by storm, whose "Rap Quotes" show runs until May 17 at Gallery1988.
On the surface, Shells's "Rap Quotes" project seems simple: he makes placards in the style of traffic signs featuring site-specific hip-hop lyrics and installs them at the intersections they describe. The project began in February of 2013, when Shells, listening to Big L's 1995 debut album "Lifestylez ov da poor & dangerous," got the idea to go to the Harlem intersection and "mark it with the lyrics somehow." In short order, Shells settled on his format -- red-faced imitation street signs, with words printed in a serif less white font -- and set about compiling geographically-engaged lyrics. "After that it became kind of an obsession to start cataloging all the site-specific lyrics, plot them on a map, and start getting the signs up," Shells says. "In New York the parking signs are everywhere. So you've got these big poles coming out of the ground every twenty feet or so that are full of holes, so it's really easy to attach something to it. I knew that wherever I'd go, whatever the location, there'd always be something close by on to which I could install a sign. Since the idea of the project is to get the lyric as close to the site mentioned as possible, it just made perfect sense to use this medium. So once people started taking notice, people started stealing them, which became another side of the project."
"It's basically free artwork. That's just part of the deal. If you put something out in the public it's going to be taken," Shells says. When video of Shells installing his signs shot by NYC arts and culture website Animal went viral, the signs quickly became a hot commodity, expanding Shells's vision for the project. "New York is the birthplace of hip-hop so I really wanted to make sure I had covered the city," he explains. "Last December, my wife, who's from California, and I went out there for a month, and I thought, I've got to do the Bay Area and L.A."
Like his work in New York, Shells's L.A. signs combine a simple act of naming -- "Doin' all the drugs off of Pico & La Brea, peace to King's English, sticky green fingers" reads a sign emblazoned with a quotation from the Action Bronson song "Ron Simmons" erected at Pico and La Brea -- with a subversive project of mapping the city beneath the city, a place inhabited by marginalized people and often actively hidden, erased, or destroyed by hegemonic forces.
Despite the playful tone of the "Rap Quotes" project, Shells's work is freighted with thoughtful meaning. "These aren't just indiscriminate corners. These are important places because of the music and because of the significance of these places to the MCs that rap about them. If you're fan of the music but you've never been to one of these places, it's very voyeuristic type of insight you gain into their world. But it's even more than that. At first glance they are kind of indiscriminate corners, but because they've been recorded on a record and they hold importance to the artists mentioning them, they hold importance to me, and I think they should hold importance to others as well."
Shells's personal favorite of his L.A. installations is from the Warren G. song "Regulate," which namechecks a Long Beach intersection. "Everybody knows that song. Even my mom knows that song. So going there and hanging outside is one of my favorite experiences with the project in L.A. It's a cool feeling knowing that this is the place. The lyric goes, 'So I hooks a left on 2-1 and Lewis' [in Long Beach]. We drove around the block a couple of times so we could do that. If you go through the lyrics of the Warren G song it's a whole narrative. If you wanted you could probably figure out the entire geographical path of that narrative."
But even Shells's designed-to-be-stolen signs can't map a disappeared city. On his first trip to L.A., Shells wanted to make a sign of a Dr. Dre lyric, but "the only lyric I could find that mentioned a geographic location was the Century Club, which no longer exists. Another location that's mentioned quite frequently in early 2000s West Coast hip hop was the Nikko Hotel, which was bought out and is now the SLS Hotel [in Beverly Hills]."
Shells plans to continue his work in other important American hip-hop cities this year. "I'm going to Philadelphia this summer, Atlanta this October. Depending on the lyrics I find, I'm hoping to follow that up with Houston. I'll be back in L.A., too." He sees his project as commentary rather than an intervention, he says: I don't know that the project transforms urban space, nor if I want it to. I do like the idea of encouraging people to get out and experiencing it because the whole reason for people latching on to this project in the first place is because of that feeling, I like to call it the 'Oh shit!' moment, when you hear the song while you see the sign where it's mentioned. This is the place. It's not just a lyric. It's a place that exists."
An elegiac gravity underlies the fun and irreverent tone of Shells's signs, reminding us that even the ephemera of popular culture deserve memorialization. The Century Club and the Nikko Hotel may be gone, but the subversive power of popular narratives that destabilize and rewrite the norm are continuous and ineffable. "Los Angeles is a city that was imagined long before it was built," Klein writes in "The History of Forgetting," a sentiment with which Shells would likely agree: "It's important to preserve these things," the artist muses. "I want people to remember and to know that things happened here and it wasn't always so nice. You mark a place to show that it's significant."