The purpose of The Hungry Signs Project is to provide an opportunity to value and appreciate people in need as creative and dignified human beings. To accomplish this, I’m paying people for their signs and collecting them for an exhibition. Signs made by homeless and hungry people are cultural and aesthetic artifacts that warrant our attention and reflection.
When I was homeless for a short time in my early 20’s, a woman gave me a few dollars and said, “for a water or soda or something.” At the time, her gesture meant a lot. The money was nothing. Somebody cared enough to say something. Now when I chat with people with “help me” signs, I’m torn. A lot of them face challenges that are insurmountable. They live day by day, maybe earning enough for a cheap hotel room for the night. The weight of their burden is palpable. It feels bad to empathize with them. However, when I do, I tend to walk away feeling like a fuller human being.
As we walk down the street, people holding signs asking for help blur into the background of life. However, if we bring dozens of these signs together, we gain a new appreciation for the people behind them. Each sign is a glimpse into a person’s history of experience. Each person’s handwriting, language, and imagery stands in contrast to one another. When exhibited together, although many unique voices are present, they are all unified into a collective too engrossing to ignore.
I’ve collected 40 signs so far, several pictured above. My goal is to get 100 signs and show them in a gallery space. For the past year in Chicago, I’ve had dozens of conversations with people asking for help. I introduce myself and ask them if I could buy their sign for $10 so it could be shown in an exhibition, and I explain it’s purpose. If they agree, I pay them and also give them new cardboard and several black and colored Sharpie markers so they may create a replacement sign. I ask if they’re comfortable signing the back of the sign. There are four rules I follow:
1) Ask the person for advice or any thoughts they might have about the exhibition idea. This has helped me understand the project itself and develop its very purpose.
2) Chat with the person for at least 5-10 minutes if they want to chat. Be as present, honest, and open as possible in the conversation.
3) If they ask for more, I happily give it to them (up to $20). However, this has only happened twice. I’ve found that being present and genuinely interested is as important or more important than money.
4) If they do not want to sell their sign, give them the money anyway.
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