The Writing on the Wall

Leah Singer

The typefaces seem to belong to a bygone era, the words to a time before that. Leah Singer was first drawn to the ubiquitous “Post No Bills” signs about a decade ago, when she noticed one with squares for the O’s. The crudeness of the handmade stencil, and the anonymity of the artisan behind it, seemed to wink at the message it was meant to convey. It was more like an invitation than a warning, Ms. Singer, 53, said.

“We’re so used to more official signs with scary warnings,” she said. “These were obviously cut on the fly by a worker on site. I started to think, Who cut that? It could have been a child.” Ms. Singer, whose work includes multimedia projects and collaborations with her husband, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, was hooked. She found signs with misspellings. She found a plywood wall in Brooklyn on which the messages were turned every which way. One sign was obstructed so that the only visible letters read “ILLS” — very hip-hop, she thought. “I don’t think I walk by a ‘Post No Bills’ without taking a picture of it,” she said.

Of course, posting bills — getting your message out, making your statement, as publicly as possible — is part of the civic lifeblood of New York. But the beauty of the handmade signs, Ms. Singer said, is that they are as aesthetically nuanced as the signs they prohibit. “They’re all different,” she said, and yet they’re all the same. “What I really, really want to do is show these on a massive, super scale around a construction site. It’s such a blank canvas. Those walls were always an offering to put up a poster or tag your name, make your presence felt here.” The workers who made the stencils, she said, did just that. “And they had fun with it, too.”

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