Journeys: Signs by Rebecca Bengal


São Paulo, Brazil, is by law signless. Three years ago the mayor decreed that all outdoor advertising be removed from the city—billboards, commercial signs, graffiti, opinions, tags, posters, flyers, even, god forbid, the names of businesses. Nothing so innocuous as the word “grocery” or a doctor’s shingle would be allowed. It was called Communism, it would bring economic ruin, it was also cheered as visual pollution removal. The scrap dealers rejoiced. Shop owners hustled to paint over their storefronts, so that at least the colors provided clues to what lay inside.

Back in the 1960s, São Paulo’s psychedelic heroes, the Tropicalia rock band Os Mutantes, made a series of gleefully trippy commercials for the Shell Oil Company. Now their own city reemerges like Oz flashed back to Kansas, dressed down and wearing the confusing look of a thriving ghost town. Paulistanos must navigate by address and number and compass direction (apparently streets are still identified) rather than commercial landmark. The signboards are as empty as a Cormac McCarthy apocalyptic landscape—only the signs themselves have been removed. The skeletons of their infrastructure remain: rectangular billboard frames and colorful oval-topped metal stems perch like lollipops. Trucks haul loads in anonymous trailers where the insignia of soda brands are blacked out in ominous squares. The skyline is wordless.

I am thinking about this in America where it is almost impossible to truly visualize a landscape stripped of signs. You wouldn’t notice the arches unless, as in São Paulo, they were erased. What sticks out on roadsides here are the hand-painted signs, the deliberately misspelled (the gas station in Roxboro, North Carolina, where “samages,” not sandwiches are sold, and clearly one can divine from this that samages are a food of an entirely different order), the classically directive (NO SHOES NO SHIRT NO SERVICE) and the updated (NO CUSSING NO DRUNKS NO THONGS), and the subconsciously revealing. I am partial also to the plaintively pissed-off: WHO IS SHOOTING OUT MY TRUCK WINDOWS? on a wall-size plywood board nestled among a forest of hubcaps on the east side of Austin, Texas. Many signs and twenty-four hours of driving later, on Highway 18, on the outskirts of Lenoir, North Carolina, not ten miles away from the pictured sign, the roadside bends to the haggardly for-sale: USED TIRED.

(Tired? Try meth!)

The answer to meth? Jesus.

You can extrapolate a few things. One, you are located in both meth country and Jesus country. The authors of this sign have helpfully provided a vast expanse of pristine white, which cries out for spray-paint and backtalk. But perhaps they felt its stark message says it all.

Signs. Presumably they act as guides, disseminating information, helping the lost find their way, reducing the abstract into something comprehensible and concrete, rendering the spiritual material. But even (and especially) the worst signs provide some sort of direction, pointing to, rather than clarifying, the larger mysteries of the world. I tend to prefer the sorts of signs that pose questions rather than supply answers. This sign attempts to do both.


Rebecca Bengal’s short stories have been published by Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009, Monofonus Press, Southwest Review, and others; she also writes nonfiction for The Believer, New York, and the Washington Post Magazine. She is generally game for a road trip.


Journeys is a project at The Owls site combining images and writing about places.  See more  >>


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  1. […] Signs […]

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