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david a smith sign writer rendering gold leaf on glass reverse sign of his name

Artist Profile: David A. Smith

Sign painting is one of the oldest forms of art we have, one that has seen rises and falls in popularity, style, and prevalence. One thing the genre has never lacked is talent, and perhaps the most well-known sign painter in the world has dedicated his life to creating beautiful signs and teaching other artists about the craft and the industry. His name is David A. Smith, and he may just be the most popular sign painter in the world.

Smith got his start in the 1980s when he left school to become an apprentice sign painter with Gordon Farr and two of his associates. He spent the next five years learning the skills of the trade. His teacher, Farr, was a unique teacher, one who “had an almost uncanny ability to paint letters, accurately laid out, without even a preliminary sketch,” according to Smith’s website. It was during this time Smith learned about drafting, letter painting, and how to draw beautiful pictorials.

a book cover rendered by david a smith

By 1992, Smith had opened his own sign painter shop in his hometown of Torquay and specialized in everything from “vehicle graphics to 3D installations.” But it wasn’t until a fateful trip to New Zealand that Smith met Rick Glawson, one of the world’s best-regarded sign painters and a member of the world-famous Fine Gold Sign Company. Glawson was “universally regarded by his peers as the godfather of gilding, with a reputation for sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of glass decoration with eager students of the craft,” and Smith soon became his close friend. Smith learned many new and important lessons about sign painting from his new mentor.

hand made font image rendered with pencil by david a smith

Smith eventually sold his painting shop and now focuses more on Victorian-style glass painting, creating beautiful and intricate works that are sold and showcased around the world. He also teaches and educates artists in the many skills he’s learned from those before him, including Gordon Farr and Rick Glawson. Smith views his educational work as paying the debt forward and “shares the fruits of his study with his many friends, old & new, in the sign trade, through courses, step by step instruction and one-to-one chats on the phone or internet.”

glass emblem gold leaf design rendered by signwriter david a smith

If you are a sign painter or a fan of sign painting, you have probably heard of David A. Smith. His work has become the standard by which glass window signs are judged, not only for their ingenuity and craftsmanship but for their distinctive design. Smith continues to create beautiful pieces of art in the world of sign painting, but also dedicated much of his time to teaching the next generation of sign painters. While sign painting has dwindled in prevalence since Smith began his career, his talent and passion for education ensures that the art will be with us now and into the future.

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.

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.