On a sweaty summer evening, I thought a crowded South Philly gallery on opening night would be adding unnecessary heat. But along with the packed house at Paradigm Gallery + Studio, I found Signs to be a gust of fresh air.
Signs is an ode to Philly culture through an exploration of—you guessed it—its signs. This group exhibition features famous Philly artists Cornbread, Drew Leshko, Kid Hazo, and Marissa Cianciulli. Each of these widely known artists has reimagined the Philadelphia cityscape through signage in all its various forms.
Inside and out
The gallery hosted a wide range of people who oozed South Philly grit and charm, complete with skateboards, tattoo sleeves, piercings, pink hair, and bike helmets hanging from their wrists. Gallery co-owner and co-curator Sara McCorriston nailed the description of the crowd: “Hard outer shell and mushy-gushy inside.” Philly pride filled the room’s energy on opening night.
With clear intention, the exhibition brings talented artists together to highlight, without everyday distractions, the way we interact with and see signs. The collection features a raw slice of Philly. While the rest of the country seems to think California and New York are the coastal epicenters of art, Philly knows where it’s at, and we’re fine with being the underdog.
We generally use signs to navigate a city and do things like locate the new neighborhood pizza spot. Signs can vary in size and artistry, whether they are government-issued, handpainted, or tagged. Though often disregarded, signs exist as a constant and recurring visual in our daily lives.
Cornbread’s street art on stop signs, basketball courts, and any other flat surface you can think of, finds the art in rebellion. He uses mostly graffiti to stamp his name all over the city, sometimes including add-ons like Cornbread, The Legend or Cornbread, World Stage. If his graffiti seems unimpressive to you, your jaw will drop once you learn that he is widely considered to be the pioneer of the graffiti movement in the 1960s. Cornbread has about 50 years of street art under his belt, and his devotion to tagging signs can be viewed as a labor of love to his hometown.
Leshko specializes in making miniature signs of Philly staples that he deems worthy of preserving, including Tattooed Mom, Melrose Diner, and Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar. Leshko seems to pick signs that are not too flashy, but are classic Philly. Seeing his collection was like seeing the old and new Philly intertwined. His signs make it possible for people to have a piece of their favorite Philly spots in their home.
Hazo makes stickers and signs that are comical puns, usually playing off Philly’s own jawn. Hazo picks familiar brands to spoof, including “Papa Jawns,” “Jawnny Ratchets,” and “Long Jawn Silver’s.” Hazo crafts pieces that “parody the heart of Philly culture.” Only an attentive passerby might notice the play on words and appreciate the joke. Hazo is my favorite kind of comic—one that cares only about that one random but hearty laugh in the crowd.
Cianciulli is a master in the artistry of hand-painted signs and vintage lettering. Her meticulously detailed signs capture craftsmanship at its finest. You’d have to be in a daze not to notice her brightly colored Pink Panther sign hanging off the side of a building.
You can tell a neighborhood’s character and style by its signs. Philly is lucky to maintain a sort of mom-and-pop feel in the middle of a sprawling city. The exhibition highlights signs that are both traditional and contemporary, displaying how inspiration travels through generations and how artists respect the art that came before them.
What, When, Where
Signs. Through August 31, 2019, at Paradigm Gallery + Studio, 746 S 4th Street, Philadelphia. (267) 266-0073 or paradigmarts.org.