examples of ghost signs on side of buildings

Ghost Signs: Remnants of Days Gone By

If there’s one singular truth about street art is it fades. No matter what you do, how you preserve it, or how often you come to touch it up, murals and signs will eventually disappear. They’ll be cleaned up, removed, the building may be bought and demolished or renovated, and the art moves away. Sure, we can try to make it more permanent, like when someone removes an entire wall to sell a Banksy graffiti, but by and large street art fades.

But while paintings fade, they sometimes won’t disappear entirely and that’s where Ghost Signs comes in. The idea of a ghost sign is fairly simple and something we’ve all seen: those old painted advertisements on old buildings. Ghost Signs, with capital letters, is an online database that collects snapshots of ghost signs for people to look at. The signs come from around the world from New Mexico to Portugal and are most often advertisements and shop names, sometimes for things we can no longer even advertise, like cigarettes or chewing tobacco. The paint has peeled away, but the trace of old street art remains, almost like a shadow or shade of what was once there. It takes us back to older times, when billboards were painted, not printed, and they were made to last. As writer Rebecca Solnit once said, “Ruins are the unconscious of a city.” Ghost signs are the literal writing of the unconscious in our cities’ histories.

The next time you’re strolling around your town, look for old signs. They’re usually higher up, often painted on brick, and harken back to at least the 60s, before regulations and bans made this particular style of painting nearly impossible. It’s like flipping through old issues of Punch magazine or stepping into the early days of Mad Men. The rules weren’t the same and advertising was less a science and more an abstract attempt to connect. You’ll find the signs in the least likely places and you may find yourself in neighbourhoods that still like the idea of a brick building instead of a skyscraper made of steel and glass. Chances are there’s a great coffee shop nearby as well, which makes for a fun weekend activity.

Ghost Signs gives us small snapshots of the paradox of urbanization and urban decay, the fact that things can fade but still remain. Many of these old signs are attached to condemned buildings, places that no one has bought up or felt the need to remodel or remove. So instead they sit there, a testament to days gone by when the signs and the buildings were newer, when the world operated just a little differently, when sign painting was a way many artists paid their bills. As sign painting becomes more and more a lost art, Ghost Signs documents the history around the world for everyone to see. Perhaps it may even inspire people to take up a brush once more and make beautiful street signs again, ones that in the future will remind people of our present.