Andres Serrano’s Signs of the Times

December 18, 2013

After noticing an unprecedented number of people begging on New York City's streets, Andres Serrano embarked on a project to collect some of the signs homeless people use to tell their stories and ask for change.

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Andres Serrano, Sign of the Times, 2013.

“Sign of the Times” was conceived of in early October when I started to see what I perceived as a greater number of homeless people in the city. As a native New Yorker, it surprised me because I had never seen so many people begging and sleeping on the streets. It occurred to me to start buying the signs that the homeless use to ask for money.

After a while, a few people said to me, “I’ve heard of you. You’re the guy going around buying signs. I was wondering if you were ever going to find me.”

I immersed myself in the project, going out almost on a daily basis and walking five, six, seven hours a day. Once, I even walked 12 hours uptown to Harlem, East and West, downtown to Battery Park and back home. I never took transportation anywhere because I felt that since the homeless live on the streets, I had to walk the streets like they do. After a while, a few said to me, “I’ve heard of you. You’re the guy going around buying signs. I was wondering if you were ever going to find me.” I bought about 200 signs and usually offered $20, which they were happy, even ecstatic, to get. (Once, though, I saw a sign that said, “Just need $10″ so I said to the guy, “I’ll give you 10 for it and he said, “You got it. I guess the sign did its job!”)

What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them, even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it’s like to live with less.

I had a certain way of approaching people. Whenever I saw anyone sitting on the street with a sign I wanted, I would crouch down, but not sit down. To sit down next to them would be like sitting on their couch without asking permission. But by crouching down, I could look them in the eye and be on the same level. Then I would say, “Can I ask you a question?”

I won’t say this is a political piece, because if it is, whose politics?

They always said yes and I’d say, “I’m an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I’m buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?” They would all say yes and it touched me how grateful many people were when I bought their sign. I got several hugs and many “God Bless Yous.”

I bought signs from people of all ages, including some who were my age. I remember buying a sign from a man in his sixties who was sitting outside the McDonalds at St. Marks and 3rd Avenue and around 10 at night. He looked at me as if I was an angel from heaven. He had pennies in his cup and couldn’t believe I wanted to give him $20 for his sign. He said, “Now, I could get a bed and a meal.”

The youngest person I bought a sign from was probably 16. I forgot to ask her age but she could have been even younger. Her sign read, “Mom told us to wait right here. That was ten years ago.”

I got every sign I wanted except one. It was a nice sign, with a photograph on a small button and some other details and writing. I had just bought a sign from his friend but when I asked to buy his sign, the man explained that it was his lucky sign. He’d had it for five years. I said “OK” and walked away. I could have offered more money but I didn’t want to take his lucky sign away from him.

My funniest encounter, the one that always makes me smile, was the time I approached two guys who were slouched over, deep asleep in the afternoon, at 17th Street and Park Avenue South. These guys were out cold when I say to one of them, “Hey Mister, can I talk to you?” I’m crouching next to him on the sidewalk and he doesn’t respond so I nudge his hand, which is sticking out over his knee, and I say, “Hey Mister, I want to talk to you.”

He doesn’t move but waves his hand, shooing me away. So I say to him, “Listen. I want to buy something.” His head is covered in a hood and he says to me without looking up, “I’ve got nothing to sell.” “Your sign,” I say. “I want to buy your sign.” All of a sudden he jumps out of his slumber smiling as if he’d been called to a board meeting to make a deal. What I love is that it never occurred to him he had something someone wanted to buy.

I’ve made my collection a work of art. It’s a voice, an instrument, mine and theirs, telling a story that needs to be heard.

I won’t say this is a political piece, because if it is, whose politics? Mine or those of the people I encountered? But it’s a timely piece, marking the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. It’s the mayor’s parting shot, what he left us with. Ironically, many people do not see a homeless problem. They are too busy going about their business to see the people lying at their feet. But I believe the homeless have influenced New Yorkers in at least one way: they’ve made sitting on the streets acceptable. On several occasions I approached someone sitting on the street only to discover it was a student or tourist looking at their iPhone or at the people walking by as if they were sitting at home watching television.

“Sign of the Times” is a reaction to a social injustice and tragedy. It’s a testimony to the homeless men and women who roam the streets in search of food and shelter. It’s also a chronicle of the times we live in. A few days ago I went to Paris for an exhibition of mine. I was immediately struck by all the people I saw on the streets of Paris. I have been to Paris more than 20 times and have never seen so many homeless in The City of Love. I could have done this project in Paris.

Although the homeless are at the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans are not far from it. They may not be homeless but they’re poor. 50 million or more Americans live at or below the poverty line.

I call this piece a collection because that’s what it is, a collection, and I’m the collector. But I’m also an artist and I’ve made my collection a work of art. It’s a voice, an instrument, mine and theirs, telling a story that needs to be heard. It’s the story of the poor in New York City, in America and in the world.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by The Guardian.

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  • alina8706

    Heartbreaking and Beautiful!

  • DejaVu

    I wish you had photographed the signs. The person had to find materials to make another – taking $$$ away from the $20.

    • Laura

      But really when you think about it, cardboard can easily be found outside of businesses, recycling bins, etc., and if they still don’t have the pen they used to write the sign to begin with, they would be out a whole $2-3 max? That’s a $17+ profit, and most of which said they were more than happy to sell their sign. Also, pictures are nice, but not as versatile in terms of possibilities for art projects. And if you change up the entire concept to taking a picture than I’m sure they won’t be receiving $20, which is a small fortune when you’re living on the streets.

      • ford ofthecrow

        Right, because it’s really all about the versatility of the signs as art projects. Truer words were never written.

    • ford ofthecrow

      I agree! “Here, I’ll throw a minimal amount of money your way, but in return, you have to give something to ME.” (…which I will then try to finagle into some overblown statement about homelessness I will present to the art world, who’ll find it irresistible.) The whole thing is just cheap. I can’t believe anyone would be ‘utterly moved’ by this. It’s gross.

  • Willie Baronet

    Interesting to see this idea spread. I’ve been buying homeless signs since 1993 and making art with them of all sorts. You can see more in my TEDx talk about it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J35V-1-d_zc

    The more awareness about homelessness the better.

    • Laura

      That was a phenomenal TED talk, thank you for sharing such an inspiring and thought provoking speech. I love your ideas and concepts about home. I connected with so much of what you had to say. Very motivating, thank you again!
      - Laura

      • Willie Baronet

        Thank you Laura! Really appreciate your kind words. If you are interested there is a Facebook group called WE ARE ALL HOMELESS, which you are welcome to join.

    • Kas Thomas

      Willie, I strongly feel you should pursue the typeface idea further and release it as “American Homeless Sans Serif” (or whatever), a free web download, a webfont, so that when graphic designers, webmasters, and others use it, they are spreading the message (in a small but important way) about homelessness. By including “Homeless” in the name of the font you will immortalize that word. The font will get used in many ways, in many contexts, inevitably, and wherever the font goes (brochures, web pages, headlines, labels, PowerPoint slides, charts, e-mails, documents, embedded in PDFs; and yes, signage), awareness goes. A great way to spread awareness. Please pursue the font. It’s a stunning idea.

      • Willie Baronet

        Thank you Kas, what a wonderful comment. Yes, am working on the font along with a few other initiatives. I am also really taken with the font idea, just need some technical help to execute it. I really appreciate your comment!

    • Ed Silk

      Agreed, photographer and professor Richard Ross, based in Santa Barbara, began collecting, photographing and exhibiting homeless signs back in the early 90s, and seeing them then made a strong impression on me. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-04-25/magazine/tm-26857_1_signs-people

  • xz969
    • Isabel

      Are there ANY original ideas?

  • jean_luc_turbo

    Great idea to create greater awareness. How come the video barely gives time to take in each sign’s message? By the time I barely read the sign, the video is off to the next. Novelty seems to be more important than message based on execution. Sad…

  • Sarz Wix

    The video plays too fast, it made me motion sick trying to read the signs.

    • http://PiedType.com/ PiedType

      I, too, wish it were a bit slower. Or that YouTube had a slo-mo button or something. I didn’t get to finish reading some of the signs.

  • kidkodine

    I am beginning to tire of Serrano…I think Baronet is on the right track.

  • owen_mshengu_sharif

    to the street person …

    ones worth as a human being –

    is not determined by those (in high places)

    you try to impress -

    but …

    the commoner

    on the street …

    whom you recognise – identify with …

    as an integral part of humanity … an extension of …
    oneself …

    owen_mshengu_sharif

    Washington, DC 20036

    (circa: 2000)
    ~ Been Homeless Twice ~

  • Adrienne

    I think it’s important to draw attention to the plight of others, however Willie Baronet has been doing this exact thing since 1993. It would be nice to see an article on here about Baronet and his experience with buying homeless signs.

  • fmarie

    Do you have a suggestion for a good charity to donate to for NYC homeless this christmas?

  • Shelagh Aiken

    Not a new idea Andres, I bought the funniest signs in Johannesburg to give to an art student at the RCA in London who was collecting homeless signs. My signs said ” My dog ate Robert Mugabe’s chicken soup now he is in gaol, please I need money for his bail” !!

  • Jerilyn

    The fact that this project says “Andres Serrano’s” all over it- is
    egocentric. The fact that it has a tired pounding rave music reeks of
    exploitation. This subject has been VERY RECENTLY tackled (with much
    more tact) by artists (with more tact) in New York City. So I am going
    to say this “video art” is a rip off to bring attention to Andres Serrano, (who?).
    Check out the photobook, entitled Why Are You Surprised I’m Still Here?
    Published in 2011. It got a lot of attention, available on Amazon &
    throughout the world.

  • Scott MacLeod

    I’ve been doing this for several years also.

    http://smnotm.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_smnotm_archive.html

  • Persuasive

    I wonder allowed why not consider our homeless population from the perspective of citizens who know it exists and choose to respond to the terrible societal circumstance in their own way. Take an individual homeless person sitting in the middle of time square. Thousands upon thousands of people will pass by this person. Some may completely ignore, others will see but then look away, many will stare momentarily, and a few will toss a coin or two into this persons collection jar. But of all these how many have given to any number of organizations to help feed the poor? How many have given to their local church which provide pantries to feed poor families? How many themselves participate in physically helping our poor during the course of their week or their lives? How many silently pray for this person and all our poor? Why do we do all these things individually or as part of a like minded group? Sometimes it is because the very person on the city street, while they may be in need of something essential in their lives, that something isn’t the coin or two tossed their way to be misused or not; those coins often tossed to placate our own inner desire to feel good in the moment for some arbitrary reason known only to ourselves. I’m not so sure about this art purchasing scheme which gives the poor person $20 in exchange so that the artist can distinguish themselves through the interaction creating a façade of human concern and involvement. It seems to be that the artist is gaining the better deal in this transaction. Donations to the poor via organizations in existence or which will come into existence to better serve them seems a little more authentic in that the donor doesn’t personally get much of anything in return, except perhaps a tax brake; and then again the return for all these is the knowledge that the hungry will be feed and the thirsty will be given drink and the unclothe will be properly covered. That lonely individual sitting on the ground in time square may then find that the people who are involved in these activities are the example that they themselves should learn to follow. http://www.couragetolaugh.com.

  • rehal012

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