Global Track Interview: "The Rap Quotes" Artist Jay Shells Discusses His Work and New Exhibition in LA

We talked to the artist Jay Shells about posting rap lyrics in the city streets they refer to.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Global Track is our bi-weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.

Street artist Jay Shells is making waves with his project "The Rap Quotes," where he installs street signs printed with lyrics from famous MCs in the locations they shoutout in their songs. Always thinking about the fabric of the city, Shells has also created cheeky subway posters and street signs outlining proper city etiquette, like "Pay attention while walking." Currently, he is making pieces by burning wood, which, of course, hinge on urban themes.

Shells has brought his "The Rap Quotes" series inside for an exhibition in California at Gallery 1988 that opened yesterday and runs until May 17. We had a chance to speak with the artist about his different projects as well as upcoming works.

I have found that this is an interesting way to interact with the public, to get a message out and to hear back what the public is telling me.

Prior to putting pieces on the streets, what was your creative focus?
Before I ever made any work (or installed any work) outdoors, my work was more personal. The only audience I spoke to was myself, and I focused on finding my own voice and style within both my art and my graphic design work.

Once these two expressions collided for me, the first output was the "Subway Etiquette" campaign, which were limited screenprints of rules of subway conduct. I placed these posters all over the NYC subway system (trains, platforms, and stations). That’s the first public project of mine that people took notice of. I loved the immediate dialogue with the public, so from time to time and when the idea strikes, I put some work up on the street to open up the conversation, and sometimes, collaboration.

Image via Jay Shells / "Subway Etiquette"

What was the first public art you put up?
In the late 90s/early 2000s I wrote a bit of graffiti but never really went hard with it or got any fame. I wrote [under the tag] anom.

I suppose the first public art I put up aside from those tags were spray-painted stencils of Biggie Smalls. That was in 2000. My friend and I did an entire 100 feet of them side-by-side alternating in black and red. That was a fun time. And in retrospect, given the homage to such a major icon in the music business, it was also perhaps foreshadowing my most recent project.

Image via Jay Shells / Biggie Smalls stencils

How have you evolved since then?
I am always evolving in some ways, and in others I am always staying the same. On the one hand, I am continuing to do sign campaigns because I have found that this is an interesting way to interact with the public, to get a message out and to hear back what the public is telling me. I love that. On the other hand, my fine art has evolved out of the public art I see on the street everyday.

Additionally, I’ve always dabbled in photorealism. Since I was very young, I always wanted to draw things exactly as they appeared to me, and that was how I judged my own artistic ability. Outside of "The Rap Quotes" project, I am working on a series of wood burns called "Do What You Want City," which have turned into photorealistic depictions of things and scenes from the street.

I’ve been a hip-hop junky since I was a kid. It was only a matter of time before the music crept into my work.

What inspired your site-specific bolt-ups?
I’ve been a hip-hop junky since I was a kid. It was only a matter of time before the music crept into my work this literally (aside from the Biggie Smalls tags I did in 2000). One night, working on some wood burns in my studio, I was listening to Big L’s first album, and a line referencing 139 and Lenox Ave. that I’d heard hundreds of times before just stood out to me. I thought I should go mark that corner with the lyric so that people walking by would know it was significant.

From there, it grew into cataloging every site-specific rap lyric in New York, which is what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve used street signs before with my "Metropolitan Etiquette Authority" campaign and enjoyed the subtlety of this medium and how quickly I could get them up and how quickly the public saw and reacted to them, so I decided that was the best vehicle for "The Rap Quotes." I’ve been having a blast with this project for just over a year, and it doesn’t look like I’ll bore of it anytime soon.

Image via Jay Shells / "Metropolitan Etiquette Authority"

What was your favorite location to find?
I suppose the first one I thought of. Big L is one of the most gifted lyricists of all time, and paying homage to his corner was really dope. I had been there before, but going there to add something felt special to me. Out in Cali though, it would have to be 21st Street and Lewis Avenue in Long Beach for the Warren G verse from “Regulate,” such an iconic song, and that street birthed a whole crew of amazing talent.

Why was it important for you to put these quotes in locations cited in the lyrics?
Hip-hop doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the mainstream. Even though it’s been around for over 30 years, it’s still looked at as a fad. New York City is the birthplace of the entire culture and hardly embraces it. Just look at the hell Leroy McCarthy is going through trying to get one street named after a rapper in each borough. The city blocks him at every turn.

I just wanted to mark these locations myself so these artists and locations could be recognized publicly. It’s important to me, and I am thankful to learn it’s important to many others. Also, giving back to the music and culture that has inspired me so much over the years feels really good.

Image via Jay Shells / "The Rap Quotes"

I’ve chosen to burn them into wood because I’m interested in the permanence of that medium to show a subject that is so ephemeral.

How do you think these will function differently in a gallery setting, since the sites are so important to the works?
The gallery will exhibit 50 of the signs from each coast, plus framed photos of them installed in their locations, so there is still context because the context is paramount to this project. Since they get stolen so quickly on the street, we wanted to give people the chance to come and see them in person and read through the lyrics.

The project has become such that 99 percent of the people who know about it have only seen it on their computer screens. This is such a shame! We are showing them (and selling them) in this setting in hopes to make the project sustainable so I can keep doing it in other cities. This summer I’m heading to Philly and will hit Atlanta in October. More cities across the US next year.

Recently you showed a different series at the Fountain Art Fair that were images of graffiti burned into wood. Are these tied to your interest in specific locations, or were they inspired by something else?
The wood burns have been my real focus the last two years and right now. They are inspired by the city’s grit—the peeling stickers, layers of paint, and grime you see everywhere if you look close. The locations are all places where I have walked past and noticed, so they kind of plot my journey through the city exploring and inspecting my surroundings.

These textures, stickers, and handstyles have inspired my work for over 20 years, but it’s only now that I am using them as my subject, quite literally recreating sections of what I see, photorealistically. I’ve chosen to burn them into wood because I’m interested in the permanence of that medium to show a subject that is so ephemeral. I really love working on these pieces, and they’ve kept my interest for over two years now, which makes it very special to me since I usually bounce around stylistically much more frequently.

Image via Jay Shells / Wood burn piece

What new series are you currently developing?
Fine-art wise, just the wood burns. But "The Rap Quotes" is ongoing as is my bike safety campaign for taxis in NYC. I’ve made over 5,000 stickers meant to be applied on the partition of taxi cabs that read “PLEASE LOOK OUT FOR CYCLISTS BEFORE SWINGING DOOR OPEN.” They are signed with my "Metropolitan Etiquette Authority" logo. I gave 100 to every bike shop in Manhattan when I first made them three years ago and continue to hand them out. My goal is to get them into every cab in the city.

Since I began this campaign, the “LOOK” campaign by the NY Taxi and Limo Commission ripped me off. I’m really just out to help keep fellow cyclists safe, so I’m glad they joined the effort. But their stickers are wack, and they put them on the windows where they inevitably peel off due to the rolling up/down of the windows.

Image via Jay Shells / Taxi stickers

Do you have anything upcoming on the East Coast?
I’m showing some of my wood burns in a terrific group show this summer in East Hampton, NY with some incredible artists such as Swoon, Mark Jenkins, and Jessica Hess, to name a few. I also have some new ideas brewing that aren’t fully realized yet for the street. So long as I get a good idea for the public, I will continue to put work out there, but I don’t like to force it. I don’t consider myself a “street artist” actually. But when the idea is right, I’ll get something out there, and when I do, it certainly feels good to have people enjoy it.

RELATED: Jay Shells to Open "The Rap Quotes" Exhibition at Gallery 1988
RELATED: Jay Shells Hits Los Angeles With the "Rap Quotes" Project

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