Critical Eye: Have You Seen Me?

“Have you seen me?” the sign asked. Five photos of a gray-and-white cat were collaged onto a paper printout, which was slipped into a plastic sleeve and stapled to a telephone pole in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The lost cat’s name was Tiger, and, according to the sign, he weighed 20 pounds. He was approximately 6 years old. “Distinguishing features: slightly cross-eyed, very long (~24 in), overweight,” the sign read. It included a contact number in case he was found.

Copies of this sign were hanging in various spots in Cambridge this past winter. I found it deeply touching. I imagined Tiger’s owners brainstorming his “distinguishing features” as they searched for him, describing their cat for the general public as “very long.” The sign’s visual composition looked like a painstaking act of Photoshop. Tiger was pictured in all four corners of the sign, swirling toward the viewer as though in kind of a vortex. In one corner, the maker of the sign had a little fun, referring to a meme in which a shiba inu hits another dog on the head with a stick; “Bonk,” the meme reads, “Go to horny jail.” On this sign, the shiba inu is bonking Tiger, as if admonishing him for being silly enough to run away. Go home, Tiger! There was something heartbreaking about the sign’s use of whimsical internet vernacular, perhaps more befitting a birthday card than a plea for help. But it also belied the kind of fun you can have with a cat, even a lost one.

Signs seeking lost pets often have an artifactual quality to them. They tend to be visually lo-fi, printed in black and white on standard 8.5-by-11 inch paper, with a few words and a large central photograph of the missing animal. This format doesn’t follow the advice found on sites devoted to lost pets, which advocate for the eye-grabbing: “Make them GIANT so that people driving by cannot miss them,” one advises. “Make them FLUORESCENT so that the color attracts the attention of everyone.” Some do follow these guidelines, but many more look like printed-out Microsoft Word documents. Or, like the sign for Tiger, they borrow the aesthetics of a GeoCities homepage, images copy-pasted crudely but carefully against blank backgrounds, so that the animals look like disembodied image-objects. Lost pet signs almost always look crafted, perhaps in haste and desperation, using a limited menu of technical skills and tools. As such, they often appear stuck in an earlier time—and they often are, lingering months or weeks after they were hung, exposed to the elements, ephemeral evidence of a loss.

Lost pet signs are made for a particular audience, that of the “neighborhood,” a concept that has always been both loose and fraught. It is becoming so in new ways: Remote work and precarious labor mean that more and more people are living in states of perpetual motion, not tethered to one home. I am one of those people; I have lived in ten neighborhoods in six different cities in the last four years, often just passing through, rarely on a lease. Not incidentally, in cities all over the world, neighborhoods are eroding and changing due to skyrocketing housing prices and attendant gentrification. At the same time, the neighborhood is often imagined as an exclusionary bubble, which leads to justify bad policy and ugly behavior. “When neighbors start talking good things happen,” Nextdoor, the popular zip code–based social networking app, posits, though many of its users disprove this; its threads are hotbeds of racism, petty infighting, rumors, and threats to call the cops.

But lost pet signs are necessarily of and for neighborhoods, addressed as they are to people who live near where a cat or dog might be. On telephone poles and newspaper boxes and traffic lights, these signs join the ranks of other fliers—advertisements for community theater productions, Italian language lessons, roofing services, dog walkers. Yet unlike these, lost pet signs are not selling anything. They are asking for assistance. They appeal to the communal impulse that we identify as neighborliness. I am drawn to them because they are markers of the hope for a community, loose though it may be, of people nearby who might be willing to help.

These days, of course, many people use the internet too, posting on local Facebook groups and Nextdoor about missing cats and dogs and parrots. But the physical signs persist, perhaps because they remain the most effective way to reach the people closest to you. They endure also, I think, because pets are part of the fabric of the physical neighborhood. They remain one of the easiest connection points between people who live within blocks of each other. (And, of course, can be sources of great enmity: Brooklyn is filled with passive-aggressive signs about curbing your dogs.) At the park, you can make quasi-friends by trading banal anecdotes about your shared love for sweet animals. Asking someone a dog’s name and how old he is while stooping to pet him is as close as I usually get to socializing with the strangers in cities who are my neighbors. Some animals even become beloved fixtures in a neighborhood, like a sleepy-looking Bernese near where I grew up in Boston that was locally famous for its size. I never knew his name but I could have recognized him anywhere—though that’s not quite true, I could have recognized him anywhere within the ten-block radius that constituted my neighborhood at the time.

Recently in north London, in a neighborhood where I lived for not quite a year on the precipice of another relocation, I saw a different kind of sign. There was a large black-and-white photograph of a what looked to be an orange-and-white cat, with prominent whiskers. “Found!” it read, in large capital letters. “Kylo is home. He rolled in at 4am after 3 days missing. Thanks for looking!” In the photo, Kylo looks contrite, or perhaps I simply want to imagine that he is, as I am always projecting moods onto pets. But there was also something that made me smile about the idea of an update to an imagined neighborhood community that has been as concerned about Kylo as his owner, who had been out looking for Kylo. I hadn’t seen signs for Kylo when he was lost, but I was able to share in the relief of his return. I was able, once again, to feel almost as though I were part of this place, rooted enough to search for a particular missing cat.

Still, I found myself thinking about Tiger, the end of whose story I did not know. This was in part because I no longer live in Boston and in part because there is usually no public end to the story of a lost pet. A lost pet sign remains mostly a one-way missive, an appeal for a locally specific but undefined group of people to help resolve a tragedy that would otherwise remain private. For a time, when I lived in Boston—which was another period of in-between for me—I found myself scanning certain stretches of Cambridge for a very long gray cat with slightly crossed eyes. In a way, I was magically thinking myself into this neighborhood, into the local lives of people and their pets, as though I might too be of all this some day, when I stop moving.

Lost pet signs are poignant visual reminders of the specificity of place in an increasingly mobile and digitized world.Read MoreArt in America, Features, cities, neighborhoods, vernacular designARTnews.comRead More

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