Oak Cliff-based artist Willie Baronet started buying signs from panhandlers more than 20 years ago. He says homeless people asking for money on street corners made him feel uncomfortable, and he had the idea that buying signs was a unique way to engage them. The former advertising agency art director went to graduate school in 2008, and he used the signs as part of an interventionist art project, wherein friends and classmates staged flash mobs holding homeless signs at busy intersections in Dallas. Later, he installed them on art gallery walls and from the ceiling at an exhibit at Richland College. Now Baronet is a professor at SMU, and his sign project, “We Are All Homeless,” just keeps growing. Baronet is raising money for a cross-country trip next month — 24 cities in 31 days — to collect homeless signs. The trip also involves a documentary film and book project. Baronet spoke to us about the project in his Oak Cliff studio.
So let’s talk about how this project started in 1993.
When I first started doing this, it came out of my discomfort out of seeing people who are homeless. I didn’t have any idea that I would be doing this 20 years later, and I had no idea the connections I would make. It shed a light on the fact that I made up stories about the homeless in my head, without knowing one thing about them … You know, you will see a lady who is emaciated, and you assume that she is on drugs … and that is not always the case. Once I started talking to them, I realized, “Hey dude, your stories are all screwed up. That’s not a truth about that person; that’s some truth about yourself.” I really try to let people tell me their story before I make it up. I don’t know if that’s hard for you, man, but I’m judgmental.
Can you think of a specific moment when that happened?
Yes, I met this couple in Austin. The lady only had one leg, and her sign said “on my last leg,” which I thought was funny. We talked for quite a long time, and she was smart and engaging and funny, and she wanted to share her story. I was just struck by her. There was another guy in Austin whose sign I bought, and he said, “Hey, do you want me to sign that for you?” so he signed it, and he told me his dad owned an art gallery. And he was like, “Please don’t tell my dad that I’m on the street … ” as if I was going to run into his dad. But he was interested in art, and he engaged me in this conversation about art, which again, is not the story that was in my head.
How much do you pay for the signs?
I let them set the price, and the range is $4 to $40, but I’d say the average is probably $10.50. I’ve paid $25 a few times. I paid $40 to a woman in Austin because she said, “I can’t leave this street until I have $40 because I need a room for me and my kids.” She was persuasive, and I said, “OK.”
Are most of your signs from Dallas, or where do you buy them?
Most of them are from Dallas and Texas. The difference between Dallas and Austin is that panhandle ordinance. Austin signs are bigger and better because in Dallas, they have to be small and easily hidden. In Austin, there are some huge signs. But I’ve got them from California, Florida, D.C., New York. I’ve also got four foreign countries: Italy, France, Germany and Canada.
Do other people buy signs for you?
Yes, I’ve had people buy them and send them to me. Up to $25, if you buy a sign, I will pay you back plus shipping. I have a friend in Houston who sends me a package every month with about four signs in them, so he’s buying about one a week. This friend of mine who I met 10 or 12 years ago has bought seven or eight signs now, and he’s not the type of person I would’ve thought would be interested in it. But he will sit and talk to homeless people for a long time. He takes pictures with them, and he’s almost giddy to tell me about the experience. I had a student last semester from Paris. I wasn’t sure how engaged this guy was, but he, without telling me, told his parents about this project, and his parents came to visit and brought me this sign in French.
Has anything bad ever happened to you buying a sign?
I’ve yet to have a single problem. I have bought hundreds of signs, and I’ve never had a homeless person be mean to me. I’ve never felt threatened. There are people who won’t sell. Some people have refused to sell me their signs at any price.
What are the transactions like?
Ninety percent of them are, “Hey, can I buy your sign?” they set a price, and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes they want to keep talking. Sometimes they want to know why you are doing this. Some of them really want to tell me their stories.
Why are you doing this?
I started buying signs in 1993, around the same time that I also wrote the most significant letter of my life about my not-great childhood. It wasn’t until last year that I made that connection. So it was like, “Maybe there’s some piece of me that didn’t feel safe growing up.” My parents provided for me, I had food … I knew at a deep level that they loved me. So I’ve always had a roof over my head, but I am fascinated by the nature of home. What homeless really means. I have friends who have multimillion-dollar homes, and sometimes I wonder if they feel at home. At one level it’s having a place to sleep, but there are other levels.
What are the messages that strike you the most?
When I started in 1993, the meme was “Will work for food.” They almost always said that or something like it. Over time, I started to see other messages. And then there was a time, from the mid- to late ’90s, when I first started to see “Why lie? I need a beer,” and then I started to see that everywhere. And then funny signs, over the last decade, have just gotten better and better. I have one from Las Vegas that says, “Why lie? I need a whore.” One I don’t have that I want is in New York. “Why lie? I need weed” is really popular there. I haven’t seen that one in Dallas. [Baronet pulls out a piece of cardboard from a Schlitz box] This is the only sign I’ve ever bought that has no human writing on it. I’m really intrigued that this guy just held up a piece of cardboard, as if words don’t matter. But yet he was showing me this Schlitz Malt Liquor sign. Being in the advertising business, I’m also aware that people are aware of what they write, the type they use, how readable it’s going to be.
So your plan is to tour 24 cities in 31 days in July to buy signs. Why?
Why do I want to do any of this? I mean, honestly, I don’t know. It would be an adventure. I like adventures. I guess I want to see if there is any sort of a theme to different signs in different parts of the country.
To learn more, visit the We Are Homeless Indigogo page.