Before Hell is Real was a soccer rivalry, it was — and remains — an ominous billboard on Interstate 71 between Columbus and Cincinnati. The sign was placed on a private farm in Madison County in 2004 by Kentucky developer Jimmy Harston.
Flash-forward to Twitter, 2016. When it was announced that the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati would meet for the first time in the fourth round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, fans on both sides realized the new rivalry needed a name.
As longtime Crew fan Morgan Hughes explained, the Columbus team didn’t really have a rival until Cincinnati moved from the United Soccer League to the Major Soccer League. For a while, it was Chicago. Then, it was Toronto. But neither felt like natural rivals.
When it came time to choose a name for the matchup between the Crew and Cincinnati, Hughes, along with Cincinnati soccer fans Mike Burkel and Steven Williams, took to Twitter to share ideas. As fate would have it, Hughes and Burkel had the same one: the Hell is Real Cup.
“As soon as we said that offhand, it took off, and it literally has not been called anything else,” Hughes says.
Hughes has spent years driving to soccer matches and football games in the Midwest. And religious billboards are a constant on those drives.
“While there's a lot of elaborate discussion points in some of them, the Hell is Real one, it gets in your face,” he says. “It doesn't mince words.”
Indeed, the sign has become a strange, yet ever-present symbol for Ohio. It’s emblazoned on T-shirts, soccer banners, scarves and a few body parts. In 2018, Hughes and three friends launched Supporter Supply Co. The small business specializes in gear for sports fans in a variety of cities, and of course sells Hell is Real merch.
Cleveland graphic designer Aaron Sechrist put his own spin on the saying in 2022. Inspired by a friend’s tattoo, he designed a shirt that read “Hell is Real Cool.”
“Religious nonsense to me has always served as an alley-oop for parity and for good, interesting design,” says Sechrist. “What's interesting about the Hell is Real sign, besides just the mysteriousness of it and ominousness of it is, it is one of the few Ohio-centric landmarks that exist. It's not something that Cleveland really owns or Columbus or Cincinnati owns. It just falls smack dab in the middle of the state, for lack of better geographical knowledge.”
Lyra Purugganan’s Hell is Real-inspired design includes a person wearing thigh-high boots and a devil horn and tail plus a goat with an Ohio tattoo. The Hell is Real sign is in the background, and the phrase “Hot Ohioan Summer” encircles the design. Purugganan, who uses they/them pronouns, attended high school and college in Columbus and is now getting their MFA at UC Santa Barbara.
“I think as a person of color in Ohio, a queer person of color, that rhetoric is always so used against queer people,” Purugganan says regarding the sign. “Just thinking about how Ohio is so steeped in a lot of Christian values and turning that against itself is really interesting to me.”
Although Hell is Real has many forms, the beauty of it is its ubiquity. Neither Purugganan nor Sechrist were aware of the soccer rivalry when they created their designs, further solidifying its status as an unofficial state symbol.
“If you've traveled to or from Cincinnati or to and from Columbus, depending on where you live, you know that sign,” Hughes said. “It's [at] a point where you go, ‘All right, I'm officially on my way. I've passed the Hell is Real sign.’”
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