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In search of life, yellow arrows

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The yellow arrows seen the most are the ones that tell us to slow down for an approaching stop.

Yellow Arrow, a project launched by the New York City-based entertainment and game company Counts Media two years ago, is trying to change that, showing the world there is more to everything than meets the eye. The company's yellow, arrow-shaped stickers are showing up on sidewalks, lamp posts and benches across the world, highlighting monuments of historic and personal significance.

"Yellow was chosen because it's the highest contrast color, it pops," says project co-founder and 26-year-old Counts Media founding partner Christopher Allen. "An arrow is used because it's the fundamental aspect of human communication. It says, 'This thing, here.'"

Anybody with a story to share can take one of these 50-cent stickers -- which can be purchased in packages of 10, 20 and 40 at yellowarrow.net -- and place it somewhere, anywhere, directing interested parties to a particular place. The story of that place is then logged at yellowarrow.net.

A passer-by who sees the sticker can send a text message to the company with the code on the sticker. In return, the user gets a message telling the significance of the place. (The user is charged only the cell phone carrier's standard text messaging rates.)

Some arrows offer information on landmarks or historic happenings, while others point toward lesser-known hangout spots or the place someone had their first kiss. Some messages can be poetic or cryptic, while others take a more literal approach.

"We're giving people a way to capture a story about the details in their environment, to approach noticing things in a different way," says Allen. "When you're placing yellow arrows, you pay more attention to little details, notice paradoxes and notice curious moments."

The stickers, which the company sees as global art, are designed to be easily removed to avoid being classified as graffiti. The company encourages people to ask permission before plastering the stickers on windows or buildings. Allen estimates the arrows have a life span of around three years.

Jenny Tibbels, 28, a Baltimore native who recently moved back to the area after six years in New York, is interested in bringing the project to the city after seeing it in action in New York. She's one of the most active Baltimore members and has posted many of the city's arrows.

"I was one of the first people to be handed an arrow; I think it was number 0001," Tibbels says. "I have been a part of it for the past three years. I moved back to Baltimore April 1 to be part of community theater. I'm hoping to kick it off here to point out local artists and places they work."

Tibbels says the arrows themselves should be considered art, not graffiti.

"I think it is twofold," she says. "Intrinsically, it's to point out what's in the natural environment and giving it a lens, like an actor or director would. I think the way something is placed, the choices made and the conversations surrounding them are, in themselves, art."

Allen recalls a sticker placed in the gym at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., last year that carried the message, "And even though today we play to an empty house, perhaps tomorrow the whole world will applaud." And, of course, the whole world was applauding the school this year as the men's basketball team turned heads with an unlikely trip to the NCAA Final Four.

Another arrow, placed by Tibbels, points to the Recreation Pier in Fells Point. The message reads, "A social hub for immigrants in the early 1900s, this became home to actors in the 1990s with the birth of TV series Homicide."

A second sticker points to The Daily Grind coffee house on Thames Street, where customers can "drink a bottomless cup of joe for about a buck." Most of her stickers draw attention to arts venues in the city, hoping to raise awareness of the community's roots in the performing arts. But of her seven arrows, few text inquiries have been logged. Tibbels is hopeful, though -- she recently spotted an arrow placed by somebody else at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Yellow Arrow is working on a new project in Washington in conjunction with local label Dischord Records -- a tour that will educate people about the history of punk rock in the District.

"We're in the process of putting together this project called Capital Punk," says Allen. "It's about the people, places and history of punk rock in Washington. It's about the landscape of the scene."

Those in charge of the project have interviewed members of the D.C. punk scene where Dischord has connections to the artists, including Fugazi from the late '80s. The arrows will point to important landmarks that sightseers can still check out. There are plans for a site where people can interact with the map and watch the interviews. The project is expected to be unveiled in the coming months.

In the meantime, Yellow Arrow plans to push the arrows into new cities and countries to expand its global appeal. Arrows have been posted in more than 30 countries and almost 300 cities, said Allen, and there are an estimated 10,000 arrows logged on the Web site and thousands more floating around, yet to be tagged.

Allen believes getting the arrows into more hands will create a new way for tourists to learn about a city.

"We recently logged our first arrow in China," says Allen. The arrow points to an artistic factory named 798 in Beijing, the only arrow logged in a country that has 11 registered participants. "As the map gets richer and richer, we're interested in what we can do to allow people to access that information in an easier way, to create a guide to the city written by the locals. We have the ability to put together the best in a city and publish them. It doesn't contain the big highlights but more of the minutiae and the things that affect people and their day-to-day lives."

But regardless of how far the arrows reach, Allen and Tibbels agree the most important thing is the ability it gives its users, no matter how many or few, to share their stories with anybody who wants to listen, or read them, especially in Baltimore.

"The city is one big, tight-knit neighborhood, and there are a countless number of stories to be told. It's just a matter of giving people the tools to tell them," Tibbels says.

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