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Graphic designer Jay Shells has been sharing his creativity and his malice with New Yorkers for a while. He started out with posters inviting dog owners to pick up the residues of their best friend. He even provided bags for them to use and make up for cleaner streets.

dog curbing street art

In the same spirit, he went on to launch a larger scaled project tackling the issues faced by thousands of New Yorkers. First in the metro with his etiquette project where he revisited the graphic codes of the official public announcements, using slightly brighter colors to make them stand out more. He went against all those annoying behaviors that so many people bitch about without taking action. He insists that it’s not just New York, such behaviors can be found in all big cities. Who hasn’t stepped in dog poo before or who hasn’t suffered through a bus ride with some jerk playing loud, crappy music. I might come off as a little pissed but that’s only because I just came back from such a ride, this chick was blasting Miley Bitch-rus for 15 minutes straight. Annoying as fuck. Taking this opportunity to salute Jay Shells ‘ tone, denouncing these incivilities with tact and humor.

From his first posters,


To his more graphic metallic signs,


He sticks very closely to the graphic design of the real  Metropolitan Transportation Authority public announcements which gives his message so much more strength.

Did I mention that he finances all of this from his own pocket? Because he does. That’s dedication on another level if you ask me. He tackles issues that everybody suffers from and he is taking risks to do so.  The city of New York has a strict policy concerning street art and illegal postings. He fortunately didn’t have too much problems with authorities yet, except an official warning and a cease and desist letter for his Etiquette project. I like to think that they acknowledged the public utility of his actions. As a fervent biker, he also distributes patches warning taxi users about the risk of opening doors without paying attention. Apparently bikers smashing against car doors is pretty common in New-York and it’s a real problem. As funny as it may be to witness, it’s definitely a problem. As a biker myself I wouldn’t want to get hurt that way. He pays for those patches too. Dedication.

In 2012, Jay Shells takes another direction with his “Rap Quotes” project. He basically took lines from 30 hip hop songs that referenced a specific place in New York and posted them up in the same exact spot the quote mentions.  His choice of lyrics resides in the fact that they shout out a specific location, it is not based on the rappers fame or Jay’s personal taste. He makes that very clear. The Rap Quotes project recently went through Los Angeles’ streets and he is not planning on stopping anytime soon. Look out!

Anyway shouts to Jay Shells, check out the two videos made by Animal NYC:

Contacted via email he had the kindness to answer my questions, here are a few words from the man himself.

– What’s so great/so bad about New-York?

What’s so great is it’s history. What’s bad is that it’s become so expensive to live here, that the people who make all the good history can’t afford to live here anymore.

 – What sparked the idea of doing the projects around urban incivilities in New York? They are actually applicable to almost all big cities in the world and a lot of people bitch about it without doing anything, what made you take action?

I’m not the type to complain about something and not try and fix it. I saw an issue with peoples behavior on the subway and decided to do something about it the best way I knew how.

– You financed the projects yourself, right? Did you expect anything in return?

True. I don’t expect anything, but I enjoy peoples feedback. My projects often become conversations with the public which I enjoy very much.

 – What came out of these projects? Fame? Finances? More clients for your graphic design business? 

The pleasure of reaching people. Fame? Not quite. Finance? A bit of new clients come calling after some of my public projects which is a byproduct that I welcome and am thankful for.

 – How did people react to it? and how did the authorities react?

People reacted very positively to my etiquette projects, not just in NYC, but around the world. It’s been really fun to get peoples reactions. The authorities sent me a cease and desist letter for my metal street signs. Otherwise, I haven’t heard anything.

 – Did you expect to have so much media coverage?

No way. I was shocked with Subway Etiquette took off. Shocked. But again, I’m very thankful for the coverage and do my best to speak with anyone who cares enough to reach out.

 – Do you think you are doing the job of the authorities? Should they be doing these civil reminders? 

They do them. They just don’t do it well. I saw a problem that wasn’t being solved and attempted to solve myself. Not sure I succeeded either. People still behave like animals. But I like to think I got the conversation going.

 As for the Rap Quotes project.

 – What sparked the idea and why did you do it?

I’ve been listening to hip hop since I was a kid (I’m now 34). The idea came while listening to Big L’s first album in my studio. An album I have heard hundreds of times. But this particular time, the line “on 139 and Lenox Ave. there’s a big park, and if you soft don’t go through it when it gets dark” caught my ear in a different way. I wanted to go mark that corner with the lyric so that everyone who walked by knew they were standing on historic ground. Then I started compiling other lyrics in the hope of cataloging every site-specific mention in New York. I started making the signs and have gone out several times installing the signs and plan to continue indefinitely, or, until I get every one.

 – What’s the point? 

To give something back to the music that inspires me most. To big up the MC’s and the neighborhoods they rep. To make people smile and it’s really just a lot of fun for me.

– Did you expect anything in return?

I expect people to steal them. I expect people to have an opinion about them if they notice them. Everything else is fair game. I try to be open and not to expect too much.

 – You started this with a video from Animal NY, How did that come about? Did you know the people over at Animal prior to this project?

My friends at Animal helped me get the Subway Etiquette project out to the masses online. We’ve been close ever since and they often collaborate with me on projects.

– The first signs had no logo except yours and the projects’ twitter right? Now you teamed up with Frank 151, how did that come about?  and why did you open the project to a “sponsorship”? finances? coverage?

Frank recently released a Harlem edition of their book. They reached out wanting to revisit the signs I put up in Harlem which I happily agreed to do. I added their logo to just those 10 signs we installed in Harlem for the sake of the book. They paid for the signs but I didn’t make any money off of them. It was a great opportunity to get my project in front of more eyes and it was a perfectly organic match for their book. It was a no brainer really.

 – You expanded the project to LA, was posting there any different from posting in NYC? Any crazy stories? 

I explain the main differences in the video. Mainly all the driving and the different poles for installation.

On Rodeo Drive outside the Versace store there were many cops. I almost didn’t put that (Biggie) one up at all. But decided we had a clear moment and I tried to do it super fast but some girl recognized me and started talking to me while I was trying to install the sign quickly. She was really distracting me and drawing attention. As she’s talking, a cop walks by and checks us out but keeps walking. It’s all captured in the video and it was insane. She then gave me a high five and walked away. I couldn’t believe it.

 – Any new projects you are working on?

Always. Many. Showing a huge new body of work at Fountain Art Fair in NYC the weekend of March 7th.

Thanks Jay Shells!

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