Uncovering the mystery of Corktown’s strangest b...

Uncovering the mystery of Corktown’s strangest billboard

detroit questions billboard

For a couple months this summer, the “Questions Guy” billboard loomed over Trumbull and Michigan in Corktown. With a powder blue blazer and a glazed stare, he looked like a handsome Malcolm Gladwell, crossed with a cult-leader-in-training. What did he want? The sparse copy — “QUESTIONS? TEXT 248-385-2135” didn’t offer many clues. Just try it, he seemed to say. Text me. Who wouldn’t be curious?

And people were, by the hundreds. They asked for good date spots and where to get the best sandwich and how to ask someone out. They asked what they should do with their day or why they were driving through Detroit, anyway. They talked about their depression and asked where their sockets were and wondered how to feel about Eminem’s beef with Machine Gun Kelly. Questions Guy had answers for all of them.

At the peak, up to a hundred people texted in a day, and over 1,000 texts were sent throughout the summer. The billboard came down last month, but Questions Guy reappeared in a new one, now disguised as a member of a parody news team with the same phone number.

While the new billboard invites readers to “text breaking news,” the questions kept coming. Question: “What should I do with my life?” Reply: “Love everyone and everything and be kind to all you come in contact with.”

Half the time, people just wanted to ask about the project itself. Is this a bot? What’s the billboard for? Are you the guy in the picture? How many employees do you have? Why are you doing this???

Questions Guy thought those were the most boring kinds of queries. Of anything in the universe you could pose to an anonymous being, you’re going to ask about the org chart? Besides, the Guy had to come up with a few restrictions, and Rule 1 is clear: “Don’t share (or request) any personal info.”

Rules are made to be broken, though, which is how I ended up drinking Stroh’s with Questions Guy, aka Jheremie Jacque, down the street from his billboard last week.

Despite the “Adventure Time” t-shirt, he wasn’t as silly face-to-face as the self-described “goofy” character he embodies on billboards. Jacque, 43, was disarming and thoughtful, and willing enough to try answering the boring questions. Here’s what the billboard project isn’t:

  • advertising (there’s no secret product)
  • spam (he’s not selling the phone numbers)
  • an art installation (it wasn’t that planned out)
  • a social experiment (t could be, but he hasn’t been analyzing responses)
  • work (he’s not getting paid, there’s no employees and he saved up for the billboard and burner phone)

As for what it is? Well, Jacque — a musician and sometimes artist who also works at a nonprofit — does have a degree in advertising, and will happily talk about the best and worst billboards he’s seen. Most of them are totally wasted opportunities, he thinks.

So he makes his own, entertaining himself while creating a glimmer of mysterious adventure for strangers. He had an absurd idea and ran with it — he was just doing a bit, really, but he has been pretty pleased with how it turned out.

“‘For the fun of it,’ that was the primary goal,” Jacque said.

He’s now put up three billboards, with more to come. Three additional times, he had designs rejected by the advertising company. One had drug imagery; one had illustrations of genitalia; and for the third, he dressed up like ubiquitous highway-celebrity Joumana Kayrouz, posed with a friend parodying rival injury attorney Carl Collins.

“I need to play the lotto,” Jacque said wistfully. “I need to become wealthy somehow, just so I can have more billboards.”

corktown billboard

There’s another billboard he’d love to put up, with a simple call for drivers to honk if they like a particular sex act. He described it so cheerfully and earnestly it took a minute to notice the idea was crude, pointless and possibly dangerous.

“Someone told me once, ‘You’re the Larry David of Hamtramck,’” said Jacque, who now lives in the University District. “I was like, ‘That’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said to me,’ and they were like, ‘That was not a compliment.’”

Jacque’s sense of humor might have a bit of a cringe-y streak, but his QUESTIONS? project had a more generous tilt. That was Rule 2, actually: “always respond positively.” (One time he got snarky, but quickly apologized.)

When people asked for suggestions on what to do with their day, he’d urge them to write a letter to someone they love, or buy groceries for the person in line behind them. Maybe they followed through, maybe he helped make the world a little bit better, but he’ll never know. Rule 3: “never ask questions of the question-askers.” The mystery goes both ways.

Jacque’s current billboard is set to be taken in a week, and a few days later he’s leaving his house and moving to Los Angeles. The anti-ads won’t stop, though. He’s got designs on another Corktown billboard rental in the near future. And he’s planning one for LA with the same goofy picture, same phone number and a request for party invitations.

“Maybe I’ll get invited to a really good party, maybe I’ll get killed,” he shrugged. “Absurdity, silliness, randomness, things like that — they’re important, they make life more interesting. … Sometimes you have to do things where you don’t know what to expect. You’re just going to get what you get, and that’s good.”

So, try taking a leap into the unknown. If you have any questions about how to go about that, you know who to text.

Jacque’s group Zombie Jesus and the Chocolate Sunshine Band plays a send-off show Saturday, Sept. 22 at Kelly’s Bar in Hamtramck.

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Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl