Urban Semiotics

Arrived, bags collected, just look at this place! 


Hungry, jet lagged, I need a bite to eat.      


Detours, delays, dead ends, I wish I brought my map.

The halfway yellow, I think I can make it.

Another red, why do I hit them whenever I’m rushed?

Finally a green, let’s go baby!

Stick man’s blinking, 10 seconds to cross.

Get money out, I’m going to be here a while.

 Shit, where are the public washrooms when you need them?

Escalators to the right, sore feet, bad back.

Bus stop outside, $2.50 exact fare.

Get off at the café, espresso to go.

Garbage can on the corner, full to overflowing.

Smoking break, 15 minutes max.

Meet Jenny in the parking lot, blue Matrix.

I’m lost, is that a question?

Dialing your number, must be en route.

Need some air, let’s get outta here.

© Charlene Kwiatkowski

. . .

Waiting at a red light on my way home from work today, I was thinking about how much of our urban experience takes place through signs. The city is a language with its own shorthand of visual clues offering us the information we need to know in as short amount of time as possible.

The city isn’t just one language either – multiple languages and sub-languages co-exist in this space. The above narrative shows one way of reading/writing the city. When I visited the MoMA in New York and their “Talk to Me” exhibit, I encountered another set through the work of artists Emily Read and Chen Hsu. Their “Homeless City Guide” offers a completely different set of urban semiotics.

This list of symbols was developed amongst the urban homeless in the 19th century who drew them on whatever surface available to communicate vital information: here’s a safe place to sleep, too many police in this area, a squat’s going on if you want to crash, and hungry? Soup run, 3 out of 5 stars.

Is this code still in use today? Read and Hus’ work gets you thinking about the old-school power of the word-of-mouth, word-of-hand method of knowledge sharing. These pictograms are like a secret language or code  (a “hobo code” if you will) that literally draws or writes a story through the city – a mystery story for those who don’t speak the code.

How do you read the city? What signs do you look for? What code do you speak?


2 thoughts on “Urban Semiotics

  1. thanks for your comment – I hope your sign-observing was enlightening! I know I’ve become increasingly fascinated of how signs contribute to the urban experience – a kind of shorthand for our actions yet with a lot of narrative potential too!

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