old deteriorated sign on a very old brick building

Ghost Signs

Many people like to look at the history of street art exclusively through graffiti. It gives the whole art style a certain edge that, while not unwarranted, ignores a large portion of its origins and influences. Street art, after all, didn’t start in LA and New York sometime in the seventies, it’s part of a rich history that stretches back to the ancient world, when it was similarly used for anything from commerce to protest.

But we don’t have to head back to Rome to see one of the primary influences on contemporary street art and graffiti. We can instead head out into the world around us and look at what many people call “ghost signs,” those old advertisements that are still hanging around, faded with time, on the sides of old buildings, or even on old billboards that people no longer use. It’s an easy way to see how street art has been a part of daily life since long before many people choose to see it, and it reminds us that art and commerce needn’t be enemies.

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Ghost signs are the old painted signs from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were used for advertising long before printers made that scale and size much more possible. They often followed similar stylings of modernism, but variations occur everywhere, as space and weather and supplies made unique demands on the artists. The work was often difficult and meant that many of these talented people lived a life on the road. But the testament to their work is still all over North America and much of Europe, from buildings in the heart of Manhattan to barns in rural Saskatchewan.

And a surprising micro-economy has sprung up as a result of the fascination with these old signs. One such company is an aspect of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT), which offers a host of different resources and experiences, all related to the fading advertisements of old. One of the most fascinating aspects of this trust’s interest in ghost signs, however, is its ongoing database of ghost signs around the world. Made entirely using the volunteer efforts of people with a similar interest in these signs, HAT host hundreds of pictures of these old signs that anyone can peruse and enjoy on the website.

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And for the more intrigued, a company in England has sprung up that’s entirely dedicated to London’s many, many ghost signs. Ghost Signs is probably most known for its walking tours of London that includes many old signs that still exist in England’s capital.

Learning about street art is also a way to learn about history from an entirely new perspective. While most of out history is told through things that can be pinned down and put behind glass in museums, there is large parts of the human experience that simply cannot fit in such a place. That’s why it’s important to learn about these other parts, and to see where the daily experience perhaps differed from the gallery life we’re often shown. Ghost signs are a perfect example of such a part of life, and their history stretches back centuries or more, and has had a definite influence on the world around us.

Ghidaq al-Nazir

Artist Bio: Ghidaq al-Nazir

The coffee industry has exploded and completely changed in the past fifteen to twenty years. Some blame Starbucks for the increased interest in coffee as a certain type of fancy treat, moving it away from the utilitarian beverage held in large metal vats to the single-brewed delicacies found in the fancier shops. Others point to gentrification of neighbourhoods. After all, fancy, boutique coffee shops are the first sign of a neighbourhood changing. But no matter the reason, or reasons, behind the increased popularity of coffee as more than a caffeine injection, it has become a different part of the cultural landscape, and its attracted artists.

Baristas around the world have long sought ways to bring the “artist” out of “artisanal coffee,” and it has usually manifested in latte art. Made in quick yet subtle movements as steamed, foamy milk is poured over espresso, people have taken this art to new heights and levels over the years. Its a wonder to watch and, for anyone who’s tried to replicated even a simple leaf or flower, it’s not exactly an easy task. One artist, a former barista, has taken those soft, subtle movements that are required for delicate latte art, and his love of coffee in general, to new heights. His name is Ghidaq al-Nizar, and he’s started using coffee to make beautiful and delicate works of art.

coffee-art

Ghidaq al-Nizar, who was born in the coffee capital nation of Indonesia, has taken to another aspect of coffee that many of us actually loathe: staining. Using the leftovers of his morning brew, the artist has taken to carefully and delicately staining small leaves, paper, and other objects. The results are incredible.

Coffee painting, as this particular type of painting is called, is growing in popularity, probably in direct proportion to coffee itself getting popular. But Ghidaq al-Nizar takes it to an entirely different level. By incorporating the actual grinds into his work, he can creates greater contrasts within the work, widening out the colour palette from more than shades of brown to include extremely dark, near-blacks.

Subjects of Ghidaq al-Nizar’s work vary, as do the shapes and designs that he gives to the various objects, but they often play with intricate designs set against simpler backdrops. Natural settings are a favourite, often adorning leaves with other trees, branches, and more to create something that’s natural and beautiful. Other times, he’ll stain paper directly with simple abstract compositions: a child in a fingerprint, a family playing around music note symbols, or a city growing from his own handprint.

The coffee watercolours of Ghidaq al-Nizar’s work swirl and intoxicate, not unlike the substance from which they’re made, and it gives his work a certain delicacy you rarely find in such small works. It also shows us that art can come from almost anywhere, so long as the artist takes the time to create something within the confines they set for themselves. In the case of Ghidaq al-Nizar, that means playing with a limited amount of space and colour in new and interesting ways.

herakut

Artist Bio: Herakut

We often think of street art as an individual event, one where a person comes up with an idea and paints it onto the surface on their own. Artists, after all, generally want to be known for their work and achievement, and will take credit for their work when people discover it. That’s a simple business move, and even artists have to eat occasionally. But street art, especially murals and large-scale paintings, are rarely the efforts of a sole individual. In fact, many of the world’s most famous murals are collaborative projects. Perhaps a singular artist created the original piece, but many artists and labourers took the idea and did the work of putting paint to wall, and that labour can often go unnoticed, mostly because people want to think of art as something done by a single artist. Very few people have actually considered the fact that Banksy, for example, may actually be a collective of people, all operating under the same name.

But there is strength and celebration to be found in collaboration, and there may not be a better example of such collaboration in the world of street art today than Herakut. The German-based duo of “Hera” (Jasmin Siddiqui of Frankfurt) and “Akut” (Falk Lehmann of Schmalkalden) joined forces over 10 years ago. Since then, they’ve mixed their unique styles together for projects around the world, from the streets of Toronto to government housing buildings in London.

While many collaborative efforts between artists, and indeed their helpers, usually relies on a certain similarity in style or approach, but the thing that makes Herakut unique is their ability to blend seemingly disparaging aspects together. Akut’s style is a self-described “top-level photorealism” while his partner’s look is decidedly more whimsical, fantastical or simply absurdist. The blend, however, allows them to create spaces that tell whole stories based on the juxtapositions, and this narrative quality is apparent in most of their work.

Herakut’s topics and focuses are usually on children, or at least use child-like characters to convey a meaning and story. Akut’s ability to create moments of grounded realism in amongst the very expressive children and exaggerated adults painted by Hera lets things unfold in interesting ways that are also easy to digest. The paintings are almost always accompanied by some sort of beautifully written text as well, which add to the ideas conveyed and give the audience something far less abstract, or at least thematically complementary, to the piece overall.

herakut artwork on building

For example, in one piece, a woman holds her baby, a real-looking mask sitting on top of her head. The text reads “There is something better than perfection.” The piece immediately conveys the beauty of having and holding a child, all while giving the audience various ways to grasp and interpret the piece.

Herakut’s collaborative efforts have taken the world by storm, and given people plenty to think about at the same time. Through their differing styles and approaches, audiences around the world have been gifted not only with beautiful art, but a moment to stop and consider what that art means.

huge mural in pachuca, mexico

The Biggest Mural in Pachuca, Mexico

If there’s one thing that’s true about street art, it’s that it’s getting bigger. Sometimes that means it’s getting more recognition, being displayed in more and more places, or the artists themselves are enjoying more and more attention, and hopefully compensation, for their work. But if you’re in Pachuca, Mexico, when you say that street art’s getting bigger, you’re probably referring to size over anything else.

The reason that you’d immediately think of a big, sizeable mural over the recognition or traction street art is gaining is probably because you’ve walked by the neighbourhood of Palmitas. This neighbourhood, just like the many colourful residential neighbourhoods, has plenty of fun houses made with different hues and tones, but there’s a key difference: Palmitas wasn’t the result of cheap paint or building supplies, it was done by professional muralists and local people through a government grant.

Palmitas, like many places in Mexico, is a nice neighbourhood that needing some sprucing up. The area was suffering in many different ways, from street violence and poverty to larger issues like unemployment and a lack of funds for neighbourhood problems. So the Mexican government decided to intervene and help out the neighbourhood. In the process, they managed to land the little place on the world stage.

Starting out as a grant, the Mexican government envisioned a mural project that could improve the area. The goal of the project, however, was not just to beautify the area, but to give it a facelift in all areas, and to give the people something to be proud of. For expert advice and project leaders, the government turned to the German collective, a group of designers and artists who set about planning the project.

Once it was down on paper, the project was massive. Over 20,000 square feet of walls needed to be painted, stretching across over 200 homes in the neighbourhood, all of which were settled up a small hill above a main road. Bright colours were chosen for the mural, with bold patterns that could be easily painted across the facades. With such a large project, the German collective couldn’t do it themselves, so they enlisted the help of locals, giving them work to do in the year that the project took to be completed.

The project was a resounding success. According to Street Art News, the the project brought immediate results, improving the lives of many of the residents pretty much from the seond paint hit the walls. “On top of beautifying the neighbourhood, the project has been a tool of social transformation,” the magazine reported, “During the process, the violence amongst younger people has been entirely eradicated and several jobs created.” While there may have been only 209 houses filled with 452 families, the results were felt by a much larger amount of people, starting the the town of Pachuca and rippling out across the world.