By turning homeless signs into art, Justin Lepper wants you to see the people we try not to see
Holding a piece of stained cardboard, the disheveled man jumps up, smiles, points at Justin Lepper like he’s just won something on a game show, and rushes to retrieve the rest of his collected works. Lepper had previously offered the man a few dollars to gather more pieces from his colleagues, and the man is excited that he has returned to collect. After crossing the street and heading down into a small wash where he has been stashing the signs, the man returns to Lepper’s car, gasping and grinning. “I knew you were coming back, I just knew it,” he says. “Boy, I sure could use some water. Thank you, bless you!”
Lepper is collecting homeless signs. Some are small and concise, while others have entire life histories on them. Some are crudely etched onto the backs of political signs or restaurant menus, while others are inscribed on both sides: “Just got out of jail/Anything helps.” Some of the messages are simple, “God Bless” or “Please Help.” The more memorable are rambling indictments of being failed by the system, or simple jokes (“Need money to cook meth,” or “When the zombie apocalypse comes, what’s in your closet?”) intended to lighten a bleak and humbling proposition: begging for assistance on a street corner.
A former state champion high school wrestler from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lepper, 33, was an architecture student who left to play professional poker in Las Vegas nearly a decade ago after winning a bundle in a World Series of Poker circuit event. Among his careers, he spent six months assigned to Steve Wynn’s personal security, where he used idle hours to brush up on art history in Wynn’s enormous personal art library.
Last summer, Lepper founded the Artistic Armory, a fast-growing artists’ collective in an industrial complex at Tropicana and Arville.
The homeless-sign project began as a simple idea: Buy signs off of the homeless and integrate them into larger artworks, to speak to the problems of poverty in our country. At first, Lepper would offer the holders a few dollars for their placards, but he quickly realized that wasn’t enough. Expanding the scope of his engagement, he filled the back of his car with Sharpie markers, blank cardboard, water bottles and more. He had longer talks with the people he encountered, and says he has kept a journal of every exchange. Lepper now speaks passionately about those from whom we avert our eyes as we idle at a stoplight.
“Most of the people I encountered were, surprisingly, stone-cold sober,” he says. “They were stranded travelers, war veterans and disabled folks, a few recently out of jail. Sure, there were some that even I was a little hesitant to engage, the addicts and the clearly insane, but most of them were just hungry. Almost everyone I spoke to was just so happy to be acknowledged and treated with a little dignity. These people really aren’t bad, just down on their luck or victims of circumstance, and each one had a new story.”
The result of Lepper endeavors will be an exhibit titled Disparity, scheduled to open May 16 in the Amanda Harris Gallery (900 Las Vegas Blvd. S. #150, 702-769-6036). It will be a collaborative effort with fellow Artistic Armory artist Izaac Zevalking (whose Recycled Propaganda show will continue there through May 24). Disparity will feature works created from the signs Justin has collected, along with other works by both artists.
This is only one of their projects. Recently returned from a show in Denver, Zevalking and Lepper plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign to take Armory works to London.
For now, Lepper is focused on the subjects of Disparity. “I think my work helps to pinpoint where we are at as a society,” he says. “Now I’m creating relationships, and there is an exchange, and I am giving them a sense of self-worth. No one wants to be homeless.”
Proceeds from the event will be donated to Help of Southern Nevada.