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Everywhere's a sign 

Artist Scott Saunders' collection of panhandlers' signs, on display at PaperChase Cafe, draws attention to the power of the written word.

Local artist Scott Saunders was walking down a street in Halifax when he passed a man with a sign that read "Will accept verbal abuse for spare change." Saunders did his best to ignore the man and kept walking.

"When I got 15 feet down the street I thought, 'What a curious thing that was.' And I start thinking about that, thinking about the negative space that this individual occupies outside of themselves. And then I thought about the sign, how difficult it is to ignore any kind of written material, regardless of who has it or what it's being used for."

Saunders went back and used the five dollars he had in his pocket to buy the sign. That sign is now nailed to the wall of the PaperChase Cafe on Blowers Street, along with 15 other similar pieces of cardboard.

The messages on them range from humourous to heartbreaking, with people asking for money to cover everything from a room at the YMCA to cancer meds. The signs are part of an exhibition that will run until the end of September.

When Saunders started the project 10 months ago, he didn't know exactly where he was going with it but he kept collecting signs. Early on he decided the process for getting the signs was as important as the objects themselves.

"The way the negotiation would work is I would approach them and offer to buy it and offer something to begin," Saunders says. "And then they would choose to tell me that's good enough or not, and then I would offer more and more and more until they finally just said, 'Yes, I want that money, here's your sign.'"

The amount Saunders paid for a sign became the title of that piece. No one chose to hold onto their sign.

The staff at the cafe says reaction from patrons has been muted, with no customers coming up to the counter to chat about it like people have with past exhibitions.

"It's almost like people are still treating them as if [the signs] were in people's hands," says Gwyneth Campbell, a server at the PaperChase.

Saunders acknowledges that some people are uncomfortable when confronted with poverty.

"If there's one thing I can say about this work is that it's non-utopian in nature. It's not trying to show us a better way, it's not trying to show something that's better than what we have in our reality. That's what symbolic work does, and this is not that," he says. "I'm simply just showing something as it is, not as it should be. And that can be uncomfortable."

Though Saunders put effort into procuring each sign, he does have a favourite.

It reads "Passing through. Need food, supplies to keep moving along. Anything helps." Underneath the words are drawings of fast food items in marker and white-out.

It cost Saunders $10 and a fair amount of haggling to get, but as soon as he saw it he knew it perfectly captured the spirit of the project.

What makes it so special is hidden away, a message written on the side of the cardboard that's currently facing the wall. It says "No one reads this shit anyway. Thanks."

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