'Buddy, can you spare your sign?': Artist buys cardboard pleas of homeless

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Panhandlers holding cardboard signs asking for money cause some of us to look away uncomfortably.

But Willie Baronet is drawn to those people and their signs like a moth to a lamp. He wants to talk to them and he wants to buy their signs.

The Pioneer Press followed along with Baronet during his visit to St. Paul this week. He is an artist and a professor of advertising at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Baronet has accumulated hundreds of the hand-lettered signs over the years and uses them in art exhibits that focus on homelessness. Some of his work is featured at his blog.

He's currently in the midst of a sign-buying trip across the country, using money raised through the Indiegogo crowd source funding site. He's stopping in 24 cities from Seattle to New York and says he hopes his project will lead to more awareness of homelessness and more compassion in general.

The signs in Baronet's collection show a breadth of appeals, ranging from "Just Hungry" to "Vietnam done this to me" to "Outta Beer."

The artist/professor notes to the Pioneer Press that for the people who make them, the signs double as both personal expression and marketing.

While Baronet has been collecting the signs since the 1990s, Yahoo! News reports only in the last five years – since selling off a successful advertising agency – has he become serious about presenting the signs to others as art.

Baronet tells Yahoo! he admires each piece as an individual artifact:

“Sometimes it’s the writing, what they say. Sometimes it’s the way they do their lettering. Sometimes it’s typos. I’m interested in the expression that goes on.”

In addition to art exhibits, Baronet plans to produce a book and a documentary film after his cross-country sign-buying trip ends. 

He tells Real Change News he's considered whether he's exploiting the panhandlers whose signs he uses in his art, but says he likes to think he is not. In addition to the awareness and compassion he hopes to raise, Baronet says he's also sharing some of the money from his crowd source funding (more than $2,000) with a group that provides services to homeless veterans.

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