Is sign spinning an art form?
To 13-year professional sign spinner Joey Castonon, absolutely. Though admittedly, it’s an opinion he didn’t adopt until he met artist Yumi Janairo Roth and took part in her “Spin (after Sol LeWitt)” art exhibition at the Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in Santa Ana.
“Conceptual art and sign spinning were the most disconnected things I could have ever imagined from my point of view, because I saw sign spinning as a sport,” said Castonon, a director of sign production and general manager for AArrow Sign Spinners in Los Angeles.
“So for the [ “Spin”] project to change my perspective 10 or 11 years into it was incredible. It was an experience. It was like tasting coffee for the first time.”
If you live in Southern California, you’ve seen sign spinners. They’re typically hard to miss: energetic people dancing on street corners as they twirl, toss and spin arrow-shaped signs advertising for various companies.
Their domain couldn’t be more different from the quiet, esteemed space of a fine art gallery. Which is exactly why Roth brought them into one.
A project five years in the making during Roth’s artist-in-residence position at the GCAC, the multidimensional, genre-bending ” Spin” takes visitors into a sign spinner’s world, playfully fusing it with modern art and dance along the way.
In the gallery space, three walls are lined with dozens of the characteristic red spinning signs, which are each emblazoned with statements from the late modern artist Sol LeWitt. A black and white decal on the floor and bleachers on one side mimic the environment of the World Sign Spinning Championship, the industry’s most renowned competition. On a fourth wall, a series of photographs display the calloused palms of champion spinners, a physical reminder of the years of practice spinners need to master their moves.
In addition to showcasing a blend of sign spinning-related sculpture, photography and video, Roth and the GCAC conducted several collaborative programs inside and outside of the gallery. Castonon, also the host of the Spindustry Podcast, conducted a series of podcast interviews in the exhibition space with LAXART director Hamza Walker and fellow spinner Justin Charles Michael Brown. AArrow Sign Spinners lent several of its spinners to participate in and promote the exhibition in Downtown Santa Ana.
And all of it culminates with a pièce de résistance: three live performances of a modern dance score by GRAYSCALE dance company artistic director Jessica Kondrath. At each improvised performance, sign spinners and dancers pull the signs off the surrounding walls, alternately spinning them and dancing, while musician and DJ Robin Sukhadia live mixes a soundtrack. Performances coincide with Downtown Santa Ana’s monthly Artwalks, and the exhibition runs through June 12 at the GCAC.
The Spin Cycle: Refining a Concept
Roth’s fascination with sign spinners began in the mid-2000s. A professor of art sculpture and post studio practice at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Roth first saw spinners while visiting family in Southern California. Impressed with the spinners’ tricks, she became intrigued with the idea of juxtaposing the outdoor, public and commercial world of sign spinning with the indoor, esoteric and exclusive world of fine art.
“It was really that intense contrast that those things that don’t seem to go together, I was so desperate to put together,” Roth said. She also wanted people to notice the spinners’ thrilling skills and artistry, which are often unappreciated due to negative stigma.
As she told the GCAC, “Spinners take great pride in their ability and athleticism, yet are sometimes vilified and outlawed for distracting drivers, ‘cheapening’ municipalities and accepting seemingly low-skill jobs.”
On the one hand, spinners are entertaining and impressive athletes: it takes a lot of endurance to perform acrobatics with a six-foot, five-pound sign for five hours. On the other hand, critics say their presence at busy intersections is distracting, causing some cities to ban the practice entirely.
Spinners take great pride in their ability and athleticism, yet are sometimes vilified and outlawed for distracting drivers, ‘cheapening’ municipalities and accepting seemingly low-skill jobs.
For over a decade, Roth thought of sign spinners from time and time, pondering what sort of project could unite their work with fine art. In 2017, she had a eureka moment: in place of the usual advertising, she would print conceptual art titan Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” on the spinners’ signs.
“Sol LeWitt is in a pretty rarefied space in art,” she said. “I was like, well, what happens if you take [his “Sentences”] which exist in this type of space and you apply it to [sign spinning] which occupies this whole other kind of space?”
The late LeWitt is considered one of the foremost conceptual artists in history, and his “Sentences” — a short but groundbreaking list of statements — helped define the art’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s. LeWitt considered art as conceptual when the concept and process behind the project is more important than the outcome.
His words in “Sentences” are intended to guide artists in their thought process: “Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order,” and “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically” are two examples.
If you’re not seeing the connection to sign spinning, don’t worry. That’s kind of Roth’s point: to compare and contrast highbrow conceptual art with sign spinning’s newer and more debated creative classification.
In 2017, Roth had LeWitt’s sentences printed on dozens of regulation-size spinning signs, then she started meeting with professional spinners to learn about their craft. The spinners spread the word about Roth’s work, willingly spinning her signs on street corners in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and at the annual World Sign Spinning Championship. As she got to know the spinners and secured the artist-in-residence position at the GCAC, she discovered an additional angle to explore: the depth and richness of sign spinning culture.
Signs of Their Times: The Passion for Spinning
To those in the industry (or “Spindustry,” as they call it) sign spinning goes way beyond a paycheck.
Though it’s only been around for 20 years (started by San Diego-based advertising agency AArrow Sign Spinners in 2002), sign spinning is a lifestyle for its adherents with its own vocabulary (“spinonyms”) and a supportive community.
It’s also a sport with national and international competitions, in which spinners perform from an ever-evolving catalog of tricks (their “trick-tionary”) that take years of practice to perfect. Sign spinning is a simultaneous job turned sport turned passion, and people commit.
You know it’s an art when people are doing this outside of work, like this is something that they have personally deemed a creative outlet, a form of expression.
Joey Castonon, professional sign spinner
“Everybody in this industry,” Castonon said, “They spin signs in their backyards, in their front yards, in parking lots, in our own office… You know it’s an art when people are doing this outside of work, like this is something that they have personally deemed a creative outlet, a form of expression.”
Many stay in the Spindustry for years. Castonon didn’t plan to stay for 13, nor did fellow spinner Davis Davis (yes, his real name) for seven. Yet both love their work, and have climbed the ranks of the company as instructors, managers, division directors and branch managers in other states. It’s a lifestyle, and in Davis’ case, life-changing.
Davis stumbled into sign spinning at age 18, newly graduated from high school and desperate to support his girlfriend and their newborn daughter. Finding work was difficult. Davis’ grades were poor, and an arrest for theft — acquired when he resorted to stealing to try to support his family — deterred employers. But AArrow and his co-workers took him in.
“When I started, I really didn’t have any clue what I was doing with life,” he said. “I really [was] bouncing back from trying to figure out what I was doing as a parent, as a person. And the sign spinning in general was kind of like the middle ground [where] I got to connect with some amazing people. And through those people, I’ve been able to pick [myself] apart and pick up understanding of how to be a better person.”
In addition to his work on the business side, Davis is one of the best sign spinners at AArrow and in the world, having finished in the top 10 at the World Sign Spinning Championships three years in a row. He has been featured on multiple news outlets, and was recently profiled by Nike Sportswear in an ad for their new Air Force 1 shoe release.
He’s one of the many spinners involved in Roth’s Spin exhibition, where the culture Roth came to love permeates the gallery space.
Though the success of an art exhibition can be difficult to measure, “Spin” has been effective in shifting the perspectives of its observers and participants.
At the live performance on April 2, Jessica Kondrath, choreographer of the modern dance element of the exhibition, overheard two women discussing the sign spinners. She was delighted to realize that the women mistook the spinners for professional dancers.
I got to connect with some amazing people. And through those people, I’ve been able to pick [myself] apart and pick up understanding of how to be a better person.
Davis Davis, professional sign spinner
“I heard one of them say, ‘Oh, [they’re] like those guys we see on the street corner.’ And I said, ‘It is those guys we see on the corner,'” Kondrath said.
The women were stunned. “[They said] ‘Oh my god, wait, those guys on the street corner are really, really talented!’ They saw [the spinners] in a new context because they weren’t outside of a Quiznos anymore. They were in an art gallery. And suddenly that literally taking them from one location to another immediately elevated what they were doing in the eyes of individuals witnessing the show.”
After working on “Spin,” Castonon has cultivated a newfound appreciation for conceptual art — he even bought one of Sol LeWitt’s books — and enjoys the additional meaning in his work. “I would almost argue that I see [sign spinning] more as an art than a sport now,” he said. “It meant so much more that a professional in [an artistic] field was looking at us and saying, ‘Hey, that’s art.’ Like, somebody outside of our circle was seeing the craft for what we saw it as.”
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