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Fire Safety Signs And Verbs: New York's Graffiti Master

Aug 5, 2008
Are fire safety signs beautiful? Or are they the kinds of things people simply don't notice? Or are they possibly an opportunity for unique creative expression?

The work of Leon Reid IV (alias Darius Jones, alias VERBS) raises these questions and more. Reid's long career as a graffiti/street artist in the United States and the UK has raised consciousness about the constant presence in our lives of official signs and safety warnings, and about the hidden possibilities these represent.

Reid's career began in 1995 when he started spraypainting his first alias, VERBS, on local buildings, trains, and other popular graffiti targets. Graffiti is one of the world's most misunderstood art forms, in part because it necessarily involves illegality and the destruction of property. Endless books of theory have been written about the meaning of the destructive graffiti act, about its role in combating late capitalism and about its empowerment of the common man through allowing him to send messages to the world on a scale usually reserved for the mass media. For all that, it's still no fun to wash off the walls of your business.

And it's the ability to wash off graffiti that moved VERBS into his first major transition: a move to the UK from Brooklyn, New York, and a change of name to Darius Jones. Teaming up with fellow illegal artist Brad Downey as "Darius and Downey", the group donned orange safety vests, white hard hats, and other construction paraphernalia. They then hit the streets in broad daylight, installing their subversive sculptures. Among them: a telephone booth sign saying "This phone for whites only." A tiny metal spider frozen in space over the bricked-up window of a house. Twin light poles in official city green, one of them bending to give the other a kiss. A twisted steel rose growing out of concrete.

What was amazing about all of these artworks is that almost no one noticed them. Impossible, you'd think--especially considering the flagrant nature of some of the pieces, such as the three-meters-tall "Walk Sign" man crossing a major London thoroughfare, installed on the street in broad daylight. But the medium of Leon Reid's art is the very medium that we, as modern people, are trained to ignore. Reid's art hides within warning signs, street signage, official notices, informational plaques--the kind of thing we pass a hundred times a day without any notice. Reid's art hides in plain sight.

Fire safety signs are there when you need them. When we want to look at them, they tell us where to go and what to do to stave off disaster. But when we don't want to look at them, they vanish. They are the black holes in our urban landscape--black holes where the artist can hide, can strike.
About the Author
Confused with the legal fire safety signs requirements? Then see the wealth of information at www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk
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