If you feel that Denver’s Public Works has too much authority in your life, you may find catharsis in the artwork of Dan Ericson. The self-proclaimed “street sign artist,” who adopts the nom de plume ‘Dunn’ as a graffiti-esque pseudonym, produces original artwork by painting hip hop tableaus on deteriorated street signs, then gives them to the artists who inspired them. “It’s kind of like backwards graffiti, taking a piece of the city…changing the meaning,” says Ericson. Unlike graffiti, whose proponents have rationalized it as a populist reclamation of private space, Ericson’s art bypasses the ‘public sphere’ altogether.
In 2002, while working on a series of facial studies, he wandered into the carport for a cigarette, where he spotted a faded street sign. Naturally, he ended up painting the cover to Ice Cube’s 1993 LP The Predator on it, then showed it to some friends. “I put it up in my room and I said this is kind of cool. My friends were like…this is dope, this is dope.” Two weeks passed, and Ericson did another piece, this one of the rap group Jedi Mind Tricks, which he handed to them to strong encouragement. When he learned Digital Underground was coming through town, he decided to try his luck again. “I grew up watching them, MTV, the Humpty Dance…I’m going to try and get one to him”, he thought. In the following years, performers kept coming through town, and Ericson kept finding ways to get his signs in their hands. Even he was surprised by his bravado, saying an eerie calmness comes over him as he pounces into action: “It is like a kind of weird alter ego, like I just tap into something”. Over six years, Ericson has given signs to Jedi Mind Tricks, The Roots, Rakim, John Legend (for whom he waited 10 hours in a parking lot), Slick Rick, and others. Ericson knew his signs were taking on a life of their own when, while eating breakfast and flipping through the channels, he spotted one of his signs beside Nelly Furtado in the music video “Rockstar.” In total, he claims to have over 130 signs out in the ether.
His‘reverse graffiti’ has a backdoor link to the hip-hop ethos -- the nerdy realm of backpackers, home recording studios, and remix culture. Ericson's style represents what’s best about our sample-heavy culture, reinterpreting the city’s metallic organs with a personalized touch. Young kids repeatedly misunderstand what he does, chiming in about friends they have who also tag on street signs. (In actuality, Ericson only uses street signs that have been donated by Englewood Public Works.) He has trouble explaining his art to older folks, who assume he’s the punk tagging their garage door at night. One piece of his features the likeness of John Lennon—which instantly wins over grandpa, while further confusing the youngin’s, who “think it’s Harry Potter.”
Fame aside, the personal benefit of Ericson's method is the camaraderie it fosters with his muses. Like a bedroom DJ, he samples content and redirects it back to the source, allowing him to approach his idols as equals. “That’s probably where it stems from, having so many record sleeves just lying around,” he admits. His art is an act of fan devotion, the sort of between-the-headphones meditation that backpackers are known for, using instead the mangled detritus of the city as his home studio. As for the future, Ericson has considered making his project public by returning the street signs to their birthplaces. Try not to rubberneck if you see O.D.B. staring at you from a Yield yign while driving to work tomorrow.
Dunn, The Street Sign Artist’s work will appear at the Open Space Gallery’s Tote Bag Show in Beacon, NY, from April 12-May 3
-- Roshan Abraham