Like most of the people in the valley, artists Justin Lepper and Izaac Baron Zevalking V frequently found themselves at a busy intersection looking at a homeless person holding a cardboard sign seeking money. Unlike most people, they turned that experience into art.
The pair began approaching the homeless, and instead of giving them money, they would offer to buy their signs. At first, they were greeted with confusion or suspicion, but they rarely failed to purchase the sign. This turned out to be particularly surprising when they found out many homeless people consider it bad luck or at least bad business to give up a good sign.
Soon, word spread among the homeless community about the pair of artists and their project. When Lepper or Zevalking showed up on the scene, the homeless would go to them.
“I always have a sign in my truck so they know I’m genuine,” Lepper said. “They say no one has ever asked them to sell their sign before.”
The exchange was a two-way street. The artists soon became more aware of the intricacies of the homeless population and gained a more intimate knowledge of their day-to-day lives and how they interact with one another.
“They’re organized, a little like the Mafia, with a hierarchy based on everyone’s level of respect,” Lepper said. “One thing we learned right off was that they form groups to maintain a corner. When one homeless person leaves a corner, another person from the group takes it over.”
The system allows the individual members of a group to hold onto a corner collectively and not have to jockey for the space from someone else. There are several groups and factions in the community, and they don’t all get along.
Lepper has spent hours on street corners hanging out with the homeless and learning the subtleties of what they do.
“They’ve got a pretty good idea who’s going to give them money and how much,” Lepper said. “They know some people will only give money if they’re holding a cup and others will only give money once a year, but in a large amount.”
The pair have collected scores of signs over the years, and each is unique.
“A lot of these have been carried for years, and they’re worn and have little notes on them,” Lepper said. “Some of them we’ve had to find a way to display both sides, because they were too interesting to cover up.”
The pair has begun combining the signs with elements of board games. The result is the “Poe Hobo Show,” on display until June 25 at Dr. Lepper’s Design Gallery in The Arts Factory, 107 E. Charleston Blvd.
“Our goal is not to exploit the homeless but to shed a light on their situation,” Lepper said. “Most of them are good people and very giving. They’ll share their money with each other to make sure everyone has enough to eat. One guy told me, ‘I don’t live in poverty any more than you do. I have everything I need, and I don’t have any worries like a lot of people do.’ That’s how they feel about it if they’ve got a place to sleep and enough to eat.”
Paloma Solamente, who does promotions for the gallery, said the artists are going about the project from a place of respect and concern.
“We had the show up for one night at the Amanda Harris Gallery,” she said. “Some of the pieces sold, and the guys were able to use that money to get the people who sold the signs to them clothes and water. It’s an amazing show, and I want everyone to see it.”
Dr. Lepper’s Design Gallery is open by appointment by calling 702-769-6359.
Contact East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.