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Rap Icons Loom Large in Photographer's SoHo and Williamsburg Billboards

By Andrea Swalec | August 14, 2013 8:25am
 Photographer Chi Modu shot photos of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg that were turned into New York City billboards.
'Uncategorized' Billboards
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SOHO — Huge photographs of Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Nigerian schoolchildren are towering over SoHo and Williamsburg's streets.

Chi Modu, a photographer best known for his portraits of rappers, recently installed billboards on Thompson Street and on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and on Broadway in Brooklyn.

Modu, who has shot covers for Rolling Stone and The Source, said he created the project, which he calls "Uncategorized," to encourage empathy despite differences.

"People's worlds can be quite insular," he said. "The more people know about each other, the better we treat each other."

The 9 foot-by-12-foot billboard of Shakur with his hands at his temples can be found on Thompson Street near Grand Street in SoHo. A 16-foot-by-25-foot billboard of wide-eyed Nigerian schoolboys is hanging nearby on Sixth Avenue at Spring Street. And a third billboard of Snoop Dogg, measuring 16 feet by 22 feet, is on view in Williamsburg on Broadway at Hewes Street.

The billboards are a collaboration between Modu and the billboard company Prince Media, Modu said, describing them as their "gift to the people of New York City" and refusing to cite the cost of displaying the art.

Modu photographed Shakur just nine months before his death in September 1996 and remembered the rapper as intense and quiet. Shakur arrived early for their shoot and "patiently waited in a corner," Modu recalled.

When Modu's equipment malfunctioned and he needed to ask the 24-year-old rapper to return to the studio the next day, Shakur was nonchalant.

"When I told people that, they just couldn't believe it," said Modu, a 47-year-old Jersey City, N.J. resident who was born in Nigeria.

Snoop Dogg, who was 21 when Modu first photographed him in 1993, impressed the photographer with his kindness and loyalty, Modu said. When he shot the photo of the rapper that now hangs in Williamsburg, he saw the budding artist's small Los Angeles apartment, with one bedroom used as a recording studio.

Modu chose to display the photo of the schoolboys, which he took in a small village in eastern Nigeria in 1994, because people have told him it's timeless.

"There's something about the honesty of it that people like," he said.

The schoolchildren and Snoop Dogg billboards will be on display through the end of September, Modu said. The Tupac photograph will be shown through the fall.

Modu's next billboard will be installed soon in Bushwick, he said, declining to reveal its subject.