No hobo: secret codes to help today’s vagabond

Illustration by Meghan Doherty

In the 19th century, hobo signs were scrawled on city buildings to communicate which bartenders would give nomads free liquor and which ones would call the cops on sight. Now there’s a 21st century version created by New York-based Free Art and Technology Lab —hobo QR codes, those squiggly little boxes you scan with your smartphone. They take the form of graffiti on sidewalks to alert nomads (at least those with $300 phones) of myriad modern day perils, like camera perverts and high-fee ATMs or just great dumpster. So “hobo” now apparently means people with obsolete 13-inch Macbooks weaving in and out of cafes in search of outlets and wifi that actually works. But the next time you need a deli with the often-overlooked nice bathroom and Plan B sold here combo, don’t look on Google — just look down.

Gloan Levin of F.A.T. Labs has created a conversion tool to turn QR codes into vector-based, laser-cut stencils that can be spray painted onto any surface and still work. F.A.T. Labs has full download instructions to create stencils of your own, complete with spray paint recommendations so you can spread the hobo help all over town.

Once you scan one of the codes, one of 100 hobo-helping messages will pop up: No hablo Ingles? No problem—there’s a QR code for that. Same with “dangerous homophobes,” “owner gives to GOP,” “no outlets,” “help if sick” and “beware pickpockets.” (Take a look at the original analog hobo codes here).

The next time you catch sight of a QR code on a wall or sidewalk, whip out that Droid to scan it and unlock the secrets of the concrete jungle.