October 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scott Blake looks giddy as he weaves between traffic on 72nd and Pacific streets. He holds a tattered and discolored “now hiring” sign covered by a piece of cardboard—which he calls his “security blanket”—and his dark, disheveled beard frames a mischievous grin. In place of the ragged employment sign stands a provocative work of street art reminiscent of old-fashioned directional street signs. But instead of pointing viewers to local streets or nearby towns, his sign details distances to Benghazi (5,951 miles), Gaza (6,512 miles), and Guantanamo (1,920 miles) in crisp black letters. A three-dimensional star-spangled bomb tops his message like a star on a Christmas tree.

Blake is no stranger to unique and controversial art. Born in Florida in 1976, he first received widespread recognition for his Y2K-inspired barcode art, a project that has become increasingly interactive thanks to the emergence of smartphones and barcode-reading apps. His barcode portraits range from Jesus to Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, and others.

His 9/11 Flipbook project also garnered national attention, which allowed him to donate proceeds to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, the Red Cross, and other charities. His work has been featured in publications like Adbusters, FHM, and The New York Times, and has been exhibited as far away as London, Paris, and Vienna. His accolades include several Adobe Design Achievement Awards, and a 2009 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Best New Media Artist. But his controversial and covert signpost project is less likely to earn him any official recognition.

The current iteration of the street sign project has been ongoing for about a year. Blake cites two primary sources of inspiration. First, a San Franciscan friend who painted directions to Guantanamo Bay on driftwood. “I get a lot of my ideas from talking with people,” he explains, “but I also go the extra mile—I take it and do this, that, and the other, and make it specifically about Omaha.” Blake initially utilized wood for his own signposts but soon realized that the ubiquitous “we buy houses for cash” signs lining streets and cluttering medians were “like Omaha driftwood” begging to be repurposed.

His second—and more personal—source of inspiration is the iconic signpost from M*A*S*H, the show from the 1970s that features a fictional team of doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. The sign in M*A*S*H points to locations like Boston, San Francisco, and Coney Island, places that represent home for the characters, but Blake’s signposts flip this idea on its head. “I’m already home,” Blake says, “so I want to know where the wars are at—I want to remind people where the boogeyman is.” He also notes that many of the locations have American bases and personnel: “In a way, I actually am pointing to a little piece of America.”

Blake’s process has become part of his daily routine. He takes his signposts with him when he runs errands, and he makes mental notes when he sees “Omaha driftwood” ripe for pilfering. He prefers outdated or illegally placed signs and avoids those that are political, charitable, or artistic in nature. The collected signs are taken to his home studio where they are painted white, cut into arrows, and labeled before being placed into the back of his car to await installment on one of Omaha’s major thoroughfares.

Blake argues that this kind of thought-provoking public art is particularly important when both major presidential candidates treat military intervention as a matter of course. “I consider (our ongoing) wars to be illegal and unjustified and I’m obviously anti-war,” he explains. “There’s no way I’m going to stop the wars; but at the same time, I’m not going to roll over. You can’t be against something—you can’t subvert something—without talking about it.”

Responses to the signposts have been mixed. “Is it weird to think that the bombs are cute?” asks Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. Many locals have expressed confusion over the signposts’ ambiguous nature. An employee of SignIT (a local company that provides the materials for the star-spangled bombs) asked, “Is this a Fourth of July sign?” The conversation about Blake’s public art has even extended to the digital world. Reddit user ZOUG posted that the works are “Not much of a statement if no one understands what they are saying.”

But Blake isn’t too worried about these reactions: “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Are you for the war or are you against it?’ My number one thing is to get people thinking. I’m just reminding people that, whether they’re for or against the wars, these things are happening.” Blake has considered crafting signposts with directions to Boston, Orlando, San Bernardino, and other American cities affected by domestic terrorism and civil unrest, but for now he’s content with his current project.

“I’ll stop when the wars stop.”

Visit barcodeart.com for more information.

Encounter

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