Martin Wong’s Traffic Signs for Hearing Impaired,  Public Art Fund, New York City, 1990 – Today

In 1978, Matthew Wong relocated across country to a run-down area of New York City, where he worked as a night porter at a waterfront hotel on South Street in exchange for lodging and a space to paint. Having grown up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as the son of immigrants, Wong understood the repercussions of not speaking English fluently, or at all. He embraced the diverse, multilingual, and multicultural environments he inhabited to make art that encapsulated the complexities and ambiguities of identity. Be it with the Bay Area hippies and queer experimental performance groups, to the downtown graffiti artists and ‘Nuyorican’ poetry collectives he became involved with after moving east. He was a consummate and continuous outsider, whose paintings began to explore themes of secrecy and activities occurring outside the mainstream’s view.

By chance, one day on the subway, a Deaf person gave Wong a donation card that read “Hello, I’m Deaf,” and includedthe American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling alphabet on the reverse. He took this straight to the canvas, including a stylized, cartoonish set of hands emerging from a fancy set of French cuffs, the alphabet to spelling out a tabloid headline from the World Weekly News that he saw on getting off the train. Brainwashing Cult Cons Top TV Star, 1981 marked the debut of what he playfully dubbed the inaugural series of “Paintings for the Hearing Impaired.” These works feature disembodied hands set against a simple background, embellished with formal white cuffs.

Created during a six-month residency at the New York City Department of Transportation’s sign shop, Martin Wong’s multisite Traffic Signs for Hearing Impaired was an exhibition with the Public Art Fund from July 1, 1990, to July 1, 1991. The work in the exhibition was a unique blend of public utility and artistic expression. His innovative use of the manual alphabet of ASL on these signs serves not only as a navigational aid but also as a reflective statement on visibility and inclusivity for the deaf community.

Wong’s Traffic Signs for Hearing Impaired mimicked standard city traffic signs in both color and shape but with a crucial modification: they utilized ASL to convey their messages. Words like “ONE WAY,” “STOP,” and “SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF” were spelled out with illustrated hands depicting each letter in the manual alphabet. This creative approach was intended to increase public awareness of the deaf community, leveraging the ubiquitous presence of traffic signs to highlight inclusivity and communication.

The project was strategically placed near schools for the deaf across all five boroughs in New York. Locations included the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, the New York School for the Deaf in Manhattan, and St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf in the Bronx. By situating these signs near educational institutions, Wong ensured that his work reached both the deaf community and the larger public, fostering a sense of shared space and mutual understanding. This act of integrating the manual alphabet into everyday urban settings was a powerful gesture towards inclusivity and recognition.

The signs were meticulously crafted, with Wong using stencils he cut by hand to create each design. The entire project cost approximately $3,500 to produce. Each sign was placed directly below a redesigned school crossing sign, featuring more childlike figures. Of course, there is the peculiarity of Wong’s status as someone new to this world. Just as he borrowed Spanish and Chinese texts despite not being fluent in them, here, too, he was an outsider. Wong was not only unfamiliar with the language but also willing to misuse it. The signs words are spelled out character by character, a method that does not particularly benefit the hearing-impaired, who obviously read like everyone else. 

In 1992, Martin Wong received Mayor David Dinkins’ “Very Special Arts Award” for the project, acknowledging the significant impact Traffic Signs for Hearing Impaired had on New York City. This award underscored Wong’s ability to create art that was inclusive and reflective of the city’s diverse communities.

Throughout his career, Wong remained an artist free from conventional boundaries. He never conformed to the aesthetic trends of the 1980s, nor did he follow in the footsteps of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, or any other post-war movements. Instead of blending into the mainstream, Wong embraced, celebrated, and mythologized his queerness, his Chino-Latino heritage, his friends, Bruce Lee, and the neighborhoods he inhabited. His art was not just a stylistic choice but a reflection of his commitment to giving voice to those without a platform. 

Wong’s broader body of work often juxtaposed the harsh realities of urban life with elements of beauty and hope. His paintings frequently featured decaying tenements beneath fiery, apocalyptic skies, yet they were imbued with an uncommon optimism. His use of the manual alphabet in these works created a visual language that was both accessible and esoteric, inviting viewers to engage with the world in new ways.

(Despite the Public Art Fund’s exhibition coming to a close in the summer of 1991, I drove to sites in three of the boroughs and found one sign still intact in the Bronx).