East Liberty's Waffle Shop has the writings on the board

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In a typical day, as he drives from his home to his job to his kids' school, David Montano figures he drives by the billboard atop the Waffle Shop in East Liberty at least three or four times.

It never fails to catch his eye.

The 12-foot high and 36-foot wide steel frame perched atop Highland Avenue is not flashy. It does not pitch any products or promote any company, creed or politician.

Instead, it displays a message to be interpreted by the people driving or walking or biking underneath the sign. On a recent morning, the message was short and sweet, in capital letters.



MAY 28 2011."

The billboard has been advertising a different message nearly every week for the past two-and-a-half years and has become "almost a speech bubble for the building," said Jon Rubin, an artist and an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art.

Mr. Rubin, whose specialty is contextual art, is the creator behind the Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen, adjacent public art displays that grew out of art classes at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Waffle Shop serves up waffles to late-night and weekend visitors and also hosts a televised talk show, while next door, Conflict Kitchen serves take-out food from countries with which the United States has been in conflicts, such as dishes from Iran or Venezuela.

Mr. Rubin began using the billboard, a fixture of the building that houses the Waffle Shop, as a way to post things people said on the store's talk show.

It has since grown into a public messaging tool, a space for people to broadcast their words for one week and $100.

"This is just a really unique space to communicate a message that is typically reserved for commercial messages," said Courtney Ehrlichman, assistant director for the Waffle Shop.

She is the person who combs submissions, looking for those messages that she thinks can apply to the masses moving through East Liberty. Context is important, she said, and so is content. The messages cannot be inside jokes or extremely specific.

The "LOVE COME SAVE ME" statement -- not one of the billboard's most evocative messages, in her opinion -- refers to a wedding anniversary.

Many of the submissions come from artists, but they come from regular people as well, and not just from Pittsburgh, but from across the world, Ms. Ehrlichman said.

One of Mr. Rubin's favorite submissions came from Kari Marboe, a woman who lives Oakland, Calif.

Ms. Marboe, an artist who is interested in how art can be both fleeting and archived, heard about the billboard and the request for submissions. She sent in her own, a love letter to her boyfriend as they moved in together into a tiny loft in California.

For a week in February, her words were perched above the East Liberty storefront: " I love you is such an enormous gift that I need to house it here for a week so that we can use the apartment."

The Waffle Shop recently held a contest calling on people to submit messages that could run for free on the billboard during the next few weeks. Dozens of entries were submitted.

"It's funny, because in some ways we are harkening back to a very old-fashioned way of presenting text and images," Mr. Rubin said.

Even at a time when there are so many ways to send a message -- over the phone, in an email, in a tweet, in a Facebook post -- there's a certain nostalgia that compels people to send a message over a billboard, he said.

That message may only reverberate through a corridor in East Liberty, rather than around the world like a Twitter message can, but in Mr. Rubin's mind there's something more permanent about it, even if it only lasts a week.

"It is a change from the ephemeral nature of the messages that we are putting out in the world," Mr. Rubin said. "Even a newspaper is only there for a day. I think there's a slight feeling of physical presence in people's lives that is missing. I think people miss that."

Soon, Mr. Rubin plans to close the Waffle Shop and move the Conflict Kitchen to a new location Downtown. But he expects the billboard, with its rotation of messages, to remain as a display for people like Mr. Montano to contemplate.

And, if they want, a place for people to write their own message.

For the past few months, Mr. Montano, an artist who lives in Stanton Heights, has thought about what message he would put on the billboard he passes several times a day.

An idea came to him gradually, as he drove by billboards barraging him with advertisements for various products and services. He sent in his suggestion -- "We offer complete detachment from all your material needs" -- and last week, Ms. Ehrlichman placed those 49 wooden letters on the steel marquee.

Mr. Montano calls it an "alternative advertisement." He's not selling anyone anything, he said, but he is trying to make people think.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://press.post-gazette.com/


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