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.
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.
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.