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Coming soon to Erie County: Street signs expressing residents' thoughts

It's about to become a lot harder to follow the signs.

The simple relationship most drivers and pedestrians have with street signs – they command, we obey – is about to get a lot more complicated with an ambitious public art project featuring more than 100 strange, custom-designed street signs installed in 29 towns and villages throughout Erie County.

The content of the signs, which will be hand-painted or silk-screened by artist Stephen Powers, will come from Erie County citizens. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which commissioned the project, is distributing postcards throughout the county and asking citizens to scribble down thoughts about what they like and dislike about Buffalo. They also can chime in on the gallery's website.

Powers also will be in town, chatting with locals about the things they love and hate about home. Those thoughts will be collected, compiled and translated into a series of what the Albright-Knox called "playfully disruptive signs meant to reorient our relationships to our shared environment and with each other."

"The idea is to go to a city, talk to people, find out about what they really love and hate about their community and make signage based on that," Powell said in a phone interview from New York City, where he lives. "The hate isn't really as important as the love, but the hate's good for getting the conversation started."

The project, called "Emotional Wayfinding," also will include the installation of a neon sign originally produced by the Buffalo-based company Flexlume, which Powers has restored and modified.

Powers, who rose to fame as a graffiti artist known as ESPO but gave up the form to pursue an art career in 2000, said he likes streets signs as a medium because they are the "lingua franca of the street."

"They're meant to communicate effectively, and I think people engage them better than they do advertising," he said. "They have a little bit of built-in authority that's fun to subvert."

The phrases on the signs – usually a few short words – will vary widely, as will their color. Although they will be shaped similarly to "No Parking" and "One Way" signs, they will be easily distinguishable from common street signage so as not to confuse drivers and pedestrians.

"At turns sentimental and fervent, the overall gesture of 'Emotional Wayfinding' will inundate our landscape with playfully disruptive signs meant to reorient our relationships to our shared environment and with each other," according to an Albright-Knox statement.

The work is expected to remain on view for several years.

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