Mike Lehman says he has been homeless for two years. He is one of several homeless people in Cambridge who have taken part in a provocative art project by graphic artist Kenji Nakayama.

Credit: Christopher Hope / Courtesy Signs for the Homeless

Boston Artist Transforms Homeless' Signs Into Works Of Art

September 16, 2013

Update, 5:00PM: Since this story aired Monday morning, WGBH News has learned that Michael Lehman is listed on the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board as a Level 3 offender. In an email to WGBH, Signs for the Homeless' Christopher Hope said he was not aware of Michael Lehman's status as a Level 3 sex offender: "The mission of Signs for the Homeless is to raise awareness around homelessness through hand painted signs and sharing the homeless's narratives around the world. The new information does not change our commitment in neutrally sharing the stories of the homeless."

Maybe you see a homeless man sitting on a bench, or a woman holding a sign on a street corner. Maybe you strike up a conversation, give a few bucks. Or maybe you look the other way. It’s not everyday you learn about the life of someone you don’t know, but one artist’s provocative project is trying to make homelessness stand out.

On a breezy afternoon in late summer, Central Square in Cambridge is bustling. The bicycle racks are filled, people are walking in and out of the coffee shop, others wait for a bus. Outside CVS, a woman shakes coins in a cup. Nearby, people sit on benches. Many look like they could be homeless. 

Mike Lehman said he’s been homeless for two years. More than enough time to get a sense of how others view him.

“The average person doesn’t care about us,” he said. “They look down their nose about us and a lot of times its not a good feeling.

I talk with Lehman in “graffiti alley,” a colorful corridor that connects a city parking lot to Mass Ave. He’s 57 and lives on the streets, but he said the circumstances that led to his homelessness began a long time ago.

“It’s a very convoluted story. It had to do with when I was younger. I had a mishap with priests – they raped me – when I was in school, and it all went downhill from there.”

Lehman was adopted and said his parents didn’t believe him when he told them about the priests.

“I suppressed it for a long, long time, many many years, until about three or four years ago, and then I became suicidal all of a sudden,” he said.

Adding to his depression, in 2008 Lehman was laid off from his job as a construction supervisor. Then he had stroke.

“I lost 20 percent of the strength on my left side, and its very tough getting employment in the trades when that happens. So here I am,” he said.

Lehman is one of several homeless people in the area who have taken part in a provocative art project.

Graphic artist Kenji Nakayama was born in Japan, and came to the United States in 2004 to study painting. While working at a professional sign shop, he received an unusual request: a homeless woman asked him to make a sign for her. A sign she’d use to ask for money from passersby.

The woman’s request inspired Nakayama. A few years later he started an innovative – and controversial – project that brings attention to the homeless through art and design. 

“I wanted to humanize homeless to raise awareness,” Nakayama said.

Mike Lehman (L) and artist Kenji Nakayama (center) stand with Dana Robinson (R), who has been homeless for three years. Robinson said when he gets a home of his own he will frame his sign, pictured here.
Photo Credit: Ibby Caputo / WGBH

First Nakayama takes a picture of a homeless person holding his or her panhandling sign – you’ve seen them – usually a piece of cardboard with a message written in black marker – then Nakayama buys the sign from the homeless person for $20.

A week or two later, Nakayama returned with a new, dazzling sign that has the same message as the original, but written with elaborately designed and colored lettering.

Lehman said his sign said “Seeking human kindness.” 

With Nakayama’s artistic touch, Lehman’s new sign looked like it could have been a relic from the pop art movement of the late 1950s. Dark red shadowing made it seem like the bold white lettering was leaping out of the black background.

“It was beautiful! It was absolutely beautiful,” Lehman said.

For a homeless man, self-esteem is hard to come by. But Lehman said he felt proud holding the new sign, even if people walking by thought it was outlandish.

“That it was so nice that we didn’t need any help.

But that misperception doesn’t bother Lehman anymore, because he no longer has the sign. 

“Unfortunately it was stolen – like everything else around here. You put something down and it’s gone.”

But not forgotten… thanks to a blog. You can see pictures of Lehman’s old and new signs, and read details of his life on the tumblr Signs for the Homeless.

The blog was started by Cambridge street worker Chris Hope, who read about Nakayama’s sign project online. 

“I just saw what he was doing and thought here is someone who is really trying and doesn’t have to reach out to the broken, doesn’t have to reach out to the homeless, but for some reason it just seemed from his project that he had a passion to do something to bring attention to a group of historically ostracized people.

Hope shares that passion for helping the homeless, so he began collaborating with Nakayama, by sharing the personal stories online of the homeless participants.

“This is more than just an art project to me,” Hope said. “This is symbolic of a greater movement for social justice to really usher in a new horizon of fairness and justice through the dark and stormy clouds of disparity and poverty.”

But Signs for the Homeless is not without its critics. In August, the New Yorker magazine published an article titled “Alms and Gimmicks for the Poor,” which suggested Nakayama’s project is tasteless and mocks the homeless, even as it brings attention to the problem.

Hope said the project has obviously struck a nerve with many people.

I think that people’s perceptions aren’t just totally about this project. That it’s deeper than that. Because, unfortunately, whether people understand it or notice it or not, many people are just prejudice against homeless, and homelessness. That’s just the truth,” he said.

But the story doesn’t end here. While Hope and Nakayama advocate for the homeless through art and online stories, another advocate for the homeless recently came across their work.

Jim O’Connell has been a doctor at Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless for 28 years, and now he’s the president of the organization.

“I think it’s a fabulously creative idea,” O’Connell said.

Frank pictured at the I-93 off-ramp near South Station in Boston in February 2012 holding his original sign (L) and the sign Nakayama made for him (R).
Photo Credit: Christopher Hope / Courtesy Signs for the Homeless

In a story where worlds seem to be colliding, one of O’Connell’s patients – a homeless man named Frank – turns out to also be one of Nakayama’s subjects. A newspaper clipping shows a photo of Frank holding a bright work of art by Nakayama, painted in yellow, turquoise and white. Frank is smiling in the photo.

O’Connell said he’s happy for Frank.

“If Frank, who I’m looking at in the picture here feels better with a really nicely done sign, then I applaud it completely. If it gives him a sense of more dignity then I like it,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell noted he doesn’t think the signs are doing much to solve the problem of homelessness. 

“Taking a cardboard sign and making it into a really beautiful sign doesn’t change the backdrop to it at all,” he said. “It just makes a nicer sign for a very sad and tragic situation.”

Frank’s sign reads: “Hi, I am Frank. Homeless. Sober. Please help out. Thank you. God bless. “

The sign says it all.  

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