Area man and recent retiree, Mel Unkolie, admits he has spent several months of his life looking for secret messages in ASCII images. 

“I used to look at ASCII images from time to time, and my wife always asked me, ‘Do you have any idea how much of your life you’ve wasted staring at those random letters and numbers? I’m shocked your magnifying glass handle hasn’t fallen off from overuse!’ And when she died a few years back, I decided to track the time I spend looking at the images, so one day, when I see her again in heaven, I can tell her exactly how much time I’ve wasted. She probably wouldn’t like it, but without her here to spend time with, I don’t have anything better to do.”

Unkolie says his obsession with ASCII images began in middle school when he spotted a dirty word in a corporate logo. He couldn’t believe the forbidden language was hidden in plain sight. He felt like he was in on a secret. And as a kid who wasn’t included in many things, this privileged information made him feel special.

“It was just so provocative to see that word spelled out before my eyes as part of a communication that was so public. Now I’m always hoping to find something more meaningful. I spotted a marriage proposal once. I cried for 15 minutes after I discovered it. It felt like I was sharing a private moment that would impact multiple generations of people who hadn’t even been born yet.”

Unkolie says the beautiful moments in ASCII images are few and far between.

“Mostly it’s just curse words or links to scandalous websites. Still, I keep searching. I guess I feel like if someone took the time to hide a message in an ASCII image, I want to honor them and their time by investing my energy to search it out. It’s just my way of seeing people. I think deep down we all just want to be seen.”

Since he began tracking his time ten years ago, Unkolie has logged 1,971 hours searching for hidden messages in ASCII images, and the clock keeps running.

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