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Street artist Jay Shells returns to L.A. with @TheRapQuotes

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On this warm Easter Sunday morning, New York street artist Jason Shelowitz (a.k.a. Jay Shells) is on the streets of Inglewood. He pulls over his rented silver Chevy at the bustling intersection of Imperial Highway and Western Avenue, hip-hop prattling on the car stereo. Then he grabs a step ladder from the back seat, adjusts his black “Rap” baseball cap and races across three lanes on foot.

Now on the traffic island, cars whizzing by on both sides, he eyeballs a pole sporting a “One Way” street sign. Quickly, as if changing a light bulb, he screws in what looks like another aluminum street sign beneath it, this one offering a vastly different message than parking instructions or driving directions.

“Where you at? Western & Imperial, It’s the pure West Coast coming out your stereo,” reads the sign, referring to a song lyric by rapper WC.

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“Ah, that’s a good one,” Shelowitz says before snapping an iPhone picture and darting back to his car. Installation time: 1 minute, 34 seconds.

Shelowitz is executing a countywide street art project in which he’s hanging 25 custom-designed, red and white street signs featuring hip-hop lyrics by the likes of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar and Drake. He’s installing each sign in the exact location referenced in the lyric. 

“I never forgot Van Ness & Imperial, look at my life Ice Cube is a miracle,” reads another by Ice Cube.

“104th & 10thAve is where my love for the wood was birthed,” reads one by Damani.

In December, Shelowitz hung 45 site-specific signs throughout L.A. County. In February he returned to hang another, a lyric by Sir Menelik at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. He’s also plastered signs throughout New York City, where he lives on the Upper East Side.

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“I do this out of passion for the music and because I think the idea is unique,” Shelowitz says. “It’s a way to contribute to the culture that inspires me so much.”

This time, Shelowitz is back with the help of a San Diego fan who discovered the project, the Rap Quotes, when it was mentioned on a podcast. Hip-hop enthusiast Robert Mullalley emailed Shelowitz dozens of new song lyrics boasting L.A. locations. He even drove up from San Diego to accompany Shelowitz for part of the installation Sunday.

“I wanted to make sure certain West Coast artists got representation,” Mullalley says. “It’s a cool project. Getting to see the actual locations, it brings the lyrics to reality.”

It’s illegal to hang signs on public property without the appropriate permit, according to a spokesman for the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services. Shelowitz doesn’t seem to mind.

“In a lot of what I do, it’s the nature of the work -- you can’t ask permission for everything,” he says. “I try to put them on parking signs where there’s really no arguable safety issue. It’s not vandalism; they’re ephemeral pieces of artwork that get removed very quickly.”

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By “removed,” Shelowitz means stolen. Most of his signs are very quickly and surreptitiously whisked away by street art enthusiasts with sticky fingers, he says. So an integral part of his project is photographing the signs in their rap-inspired environments before he announces their presence to the world on Twitter (@therapquotes). He plans to hit Philadelphia this summer and Atlanta in the fall. “Eventually: Chicago, Houston, New Orleans and the Bay Area,” he says.

Shelowitz is also archiving the photographs in an online database -- not yet launched -- so that people can follow the project as it spreads across the country and ogle the locations mentioned in their favorite songs.

Many of those photographs, along with 100 of the signs themselves, will appear in an exhibition at Gallery 1988, a Melrose Avenue venue that focuses on emerging artists and works that have pop-culture themes. “The Rap Quotes by Jay Shells” opens April 25 and is Shelowitz's first solo exhibition in L.A.; his paintings and wood burnings have been shown in solo shows in New York.

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“I’ll take anything that takes hip-hop and re-contextualizes it in a new, smart way,” says Gallery 1988 co-owner Jensen Karp. “A lot street artists -- there’s an abundance of stenciling or painting on the sides of buildings; we felt this medium of signs was a new type of way to do art in the streets, a cool way to get your expression out there.”

The public’s take on the project -- be it emailing him suggested lyrics or simply commenting about it on social media (#TheRapQuotes) -- is key for Shelowitz.

“After the first one in New York, people reached out: ‘Will you come to Philly, Boston, New Orleans?’” he says. “I love that, I want people to reach out. Because in the end, it’s a collaborative project. It’s about the music.”

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