Photographer Partners with Billboard Company On Public Art Project

© Chi Modu. An early portrait of rapper Snoop Dogg as it appears on a billboard in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.

© Chi Modu. An early portrait of rapper Snoop Dogg as it appears on a billboard in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Wanting to get his portraits of Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and other images from the early years of hip hop stars in front of the public, photographer Chi Modu decided not to go to a gallery or a museum: Instead, he’s taken over billboards around New York City. Modu, a former director of photography at the hip-hop magazine The Source, contacted a billboard company, Prince Media, when he saw that they had unused billboards.

The company had worked before with artists and were eager to provide him with unused billboard space, he says. “They were fired up about it.” Within days he and the company had come to an agreement on a deal that allowed Modu to put up his photographs on four billboards in Manhattan and Brooklyn through the end of September. “[Photographers] don’t need Nike to get us a billboard,” Modu says. “You can get a billboard without Nike; go ahead and show your work.”
While Modu declined to discuss the financial details of his deal with Prince Media, the photographer says that the rent the company pays to building owners and the costs of creating the billboards were factors in the agreement. “Together we came up with a deal that I thought was fair,” Modu says. “We found some safe ground where they felt comfortable, but [the billboards are] definitely not free.”

Modu was able to select where he wanted his images to appear from Prince Media’s inventory of unused space.

The billboards include an image of a group of students at a church in Nigeria, where Modu’s family is from, and vintage images of rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. “Even when I’m home playing with my kids I know that someone is seeing my photographs, and that’s kind of a cool thing,” Modu says.

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© Chi Modu. A portrait Modu made of Tupac Shakur on a billboard in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

Modu decided to call the public art project “Uncategorized” in reference to the idea that people like to try and put photographers—and all artists—into easily defined categories. “People try to say you’re this kind of photographer, you’re that kind of photographer, and just about every [photographer] looks at themselves as uncategorized,” Modu explains. “For me it was such a universal word.”

The billboard images include a URL for a website Modu built for the project, which explains the project and includes a gallery of 15 images he wanted to share with the public. Modu plans to introduce other images in the future, and wants to expand the project to other cities.

© Chi Modu. An image of children at a school in Eastern Nigeria on a billboard in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.

© Chi Modu. An image of children at a school in Eastern Nigeria on a billboard in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

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