Faux ghostsigns, authenticity and the passage of time: Guest post from Best Dressed Signs 18

Faux ghostsign for Cinquecento cafe

Photo: Best Dressed Signs

‘Faux’ ghostsigns are a relatively new phenomenon but are appearing with increasing frequency around the world. I invited Meredith Kasabian, of Boston’s Best Dressed Signs and The Pre-Vinylite Society, to share her thoughts given her and Josh Luke’s recent work on the example above.

Several months ago, Josh and I received a request to paint a faux ghost sign in an alleyway for a restaurant called Cinquecento in Boston’s South End – a neighbourhood known for its abundance of authentic ghost signs, most likely painted between 1850 and 1950. The designer wanted the sign to look authentically antique – like the sign (and hence the restaurant) had been there for many years and the modern neighbourhood had grown up around it. He achieved this effect by cutting off the tops of the letters to make the sign appear as though the ceiling that connected the two buildings on either side of the alleyway had been built years after the sign had been painted. The desired effect was an evocation of longevity – even though the restaurant was highly anticipated and opened in a premium location which had housed another popular (yet short-lived) restaurant in the years previous to the opening of Cinquecento.

We were happy to produce the sign for the client and pleased with the outcome, but, as contemporary sign painters who strive to produce quality, vibrant, and modern signs, we couldn’t help but feel a little strange about producing an intentionally weathered sign. Also, the use of a faux ghost sign as a way to achieve an appearance of authenticity seems like an ironic and impossible endeavour, as authenticity, by definition, cannot be contrived. Though the definition of the word “authentic” is open to interpretation, many would agree with the first entry on dictionary.com, which states that something authentic is “not false or copied.” This definition suggests that authenticity requires originality. The second definition supports this connection between authenticity and originality by denoting authenticity as “having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence”.

An “authentic” ghost sign is considered authentic because its origins can be verified as being from a certain date. Even an “authentic diamond” requires the support of an authority that originally defined the characteristics of a diamond. So if origin is a defining factor of authenticity, it follows that authenticity can never be far removed from the concept of a linear progression of time – an origin must be established in order for authenticity or authentication to be achieved or proven later on in time.

Damon Styer of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco acknowledges the difficulty of defining authenticity in his artist statement for the shop’s 2011 “Genuine Authentic Hand Painted Signs” show at San Francisco’s Summit Gallery. He explains that,

“[f]or better or worse, everything we produce at New Bohemia Signs is ultimately realized at the end of a hand-held paint brush. We are limited, I suppose, by our choice of tools, and the quality of our practice. The ‘weak link’ in our production line is in our capacity to render an internally envisioned ideal, with our given set of body parts. I have to guess that that point of reduction, to humanity, to human frailty, is where we’re able to lay any claim to authenticity in what we do.”

For Styer, the origin or ultimate authority that resides at the core of his genuine, authentic, hand-painted signs is the human body itself, the “human frailty” that defines our mortality and the passage of time that accompanies it. As linear time begins at an origin and progresses towards an ultimate death, an anxiety of mortality is inextricably linked to the passage of time – that same passage of time that allows us to define authenticity.

The fairly recent vogue for faux ghost signs speaks to the desire to capture the complex emotional responses that viewing authentic ghost signs arouse, the most commonly perceived of which is a nostalgia for an era that the viewer has likely not experienced first-hand. But for me, the very appeal of a ghost sign is in its spectral appearance – not in the memory of an actual time that has passed. In contemplating the fascination that a ghost sign conjures, I don’t necessarily feel a yearning for the time when the sign was freshly painted, but I do lament the passage of time that has brought the sign to its current, ghostly state. It’s this recognition of the passage of time – the changing contexts and environment that have transformed the essence of the sign, but not the sign itself – that appeals to me when I see an authentic ghost sign. The steadfast nature of the sign, despite its weathered appearance, evokes a sense of an authentic origin that is far removed from the sign in its present state but still discernible. The trace of this origin infuses me with a sense of melancholy that’s normally associated with nostalgia, but is really an expression of anxiety concerning my own mortality at the sight of authenticity.

Sam Roberts and Sebastian Groes discuss the phenomenon of repainting ghost signs in their article, “Ghost Signs: London’s fading Spectacle of History“. Though this act of conservation is exactly opposite to the construction of a faux ghost sign, both practices strive to produce what Roberts and Groes call a “naïve nostalgia”, a kind of contrived connection to a past that’s either artificially preserved or never existed at all. In both instances (an “authentic” ghost sign that’s been repainted to appear modern or a faux ghost sign that’s been constructed to look antique) the sign loses this sense of “authenticity” by attempting to cheat the natural progression of time. The appeal of genuine ghost signs exists in the layers of time – in the form of grit or fading – that make the sign appear “ghosted” but not dead. An attempt to obscure or accelerate this linear progression denies the viewer a contemplation of his own mortality and a glimpse at real authenticity.

– Meredith Kasabian, Best Dressed Signs and The Pre-Vinylite Society

Thank you Meredith for this fascinating perspective on the authenticity of faux and repainted ghostsigns, and also the allure of ghostsigns in the first place. I think this could be the start of an interesting exploration and discussion of these themes here on the blog and in the comments. What do you, the readers, think about these issues?

You can read more of Meredith’s writing on the Hand Painted Signs blog.

  • Nick Romaniak

    It’s so hard to feel like it’s negative or positive. The work itself is outstanding… but yeah, Meredith, I think you’re totally right… I feel a lament for the passage of time when I see something that is beautiful, but weathered and/or neglected. Knowing that the sign was painted as a ghost sign puts me in a place where there is this loss of real feeling about it. It’s beautiful, but now I feel a bit tricked when I look at it and get inklings of that same nostalgic feeling.

    • I think that keeping the craft of signpainting going is the most important thing, and that doesn’t require the recreation of freshly ‘ghosted’ signs. If this business means business then why not paint a fresh sign that can age gracefully as the business does? Much cooler, and much more confident.

  • Yvette Rutledge

    Sam, it’s not my experience that faux ghost signs are such a recent phenomenon. When I learned to paint in New England forty years ago, people were already asking me to age wall and window signs prematurely, even gold leaf! It seemed that the purpose was mostly to make them blend with the rest of their immediate signscape…we also got requests to paint on boards that were not protected by a sealing background coat, so that they would age predictably–like whitewashed picket fences with the grain beginning to show.

    Of course the film industry does it all the time as part of their illusion-creation–my daughter Claire Hassig works as a sign painter/scenic in the industry and absorbed many aging techniques from her older scenic painter mentors.

    Meredith writes beautifully, and is correct that there is something missing, something that is a bit indicative of our society that is too impatient to achieve age honestly, when the authenticity-of-long-established-premises factor is a fake. But I think it’s likely that imitation increases the perceived value of the genuine ghost signs.Their age is a badge of honor, like antique furniture. Or wrinkled skin. So I’m hoping that the wider recognition of their beauty overrides the other tendency of our society (to champion everything shiny and new), and makes people ever less likely to paint over them. Thank you both for drawing attention. 🙂
    Mystic Blue Signs

  • Meredith Kasabian

    Thanks for the comments you guys!!

    Nick—yeah, I do feel kind of tricked, or like I’m on a movie set that Yvette’s
    daughter worked on and not in a real urban environment that has been around for
    hundreds of years and holds the grime and stories of a lived past in its
    material structure. I also kind of have this thing lately about how important
    it is to use all my senses when I’m out in the world, not just my vision, and a faux ghost sign smells like fresh paint!

    Yvette—Thanks for the kind words! We have such a weird relationship with linear time in our society. The idea of “aging honestly” as you put it, is almost an affront to people–God forbid we let our bodies age honestly and we just don’t have time to allow a sign to age honestly because we don’t trust that things can really last anymore. There is definitely a lack of attention span in this information age.

    But I agree that the imitation can spark a renewed reverence for the real thing. And hopefully it’ll also spark some reverence for “authentic” freshly painted signs–painted by sign painters (REAL people that are still LIVING!) who do the kind of work that makes us think about stuff like this!

  • jayar

    Oh boy, I have lots to say about this, but will keep it short for the moment. This faux ghost sign makes a very nice first impression, but fairly quickly irritates when one notices that the typefaces (“lettering styles” would be a more correct term) are not really appropriate. I assume the sign is supposed to look like it is from an era before “Eurostile” (early 1960s) or “Avant Garde” (late 1960s) were designed. It’s a bit like a western I saw once with a saloon sign in Arial.

    • I’d have to defer to your better knowledge of the evolution of type, although this would appear to exacerbate the the authenticity issue further. It adds another layer of ‘faux’, so to speak.

      • Jay Rutherford

        I suppose this could be considered a rationale for the lettering styles, if it was indeed intentional, tongue firmly planted in cheek. I do like the sign, especially keeping this intention in mind.

    • Meredith Kasabian

      Thanks for your comment Jay! I agree with Sam that your point about the anachronistic lettering style only furthers my argument about the problematic nature of faux ghost signs. I chose to talk about larger themes in my post, rather than get into the many specific anachronisms that can come up when embarking on a faux ghost sign. To get even more specific about the levels of inauthenticity, this sign was actually designed on a computer by a graphic designer and it was presented to us as a computerized mockup of a ghost sign, which adds yet another layer of “faux.” We were hired to execute the design and make it look old to match what it looked like on the mockup. As I believe I got across in my post, this felt very strange to us and made me so uneasy as to want to think it through and write on this topic. Thanks for your additional insight! (Here’s the mockup, by the way. I think we did a pretty good job making it a reality!) 🙂

      • Jay Rutherford

        Thanks for this mock-up – you did indeed do a good job of making it a reality! If there were any “errors” in lettering choice, it was the designer’s responsibility. I understand your uneasiness – I am still grappling with these feelings regarding another project where I live.

  • Jay Rutherford

    I photographed a very nice “palimpsest” about 20 years ago in what is now my hometown, Weimar, Germany. The original lettering was quite amateur, obviously not done by a professional sign painter – letters constructed with ruler and compass, no feeling for the tradition of letterforms. After what was probably several decades, the original was painted over and new lettering was done in place, this time by someone who apparently knew what they were doing. Again after some, perhaps many, decades, the covering coat had faded and both layers showed through, hence the “palimpsest” effect. This location has since been renovated and all vestiges of the lettering are now gone, not merely painted over but chipped away and disposed of. I scanned the photos and vectorised both layers of the lettering, creating a file that I then plotted out at one-to-one with the intention of recreating the whole thing using the traditional “pounce” technique. I have never given up on this idea, I just haven’t managed to get around to it. I don’t really know where I would do this, since it would need quite a large free area. The “faux ghost signs” section of this site inspires me to take up this idea again. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

    • Jay Rutherford

      BTW, I have indeed done some lettering where the above-menioned signs were removed. It’s part of a project from 2001 where I found quotes, designed their appearance, and hired a sign painter to paint them. There were 16 locations around the city, several of which have been hidden by new construction, several more of which have faded enough over the ensuing 12 years to be considered ghost signs.

  • Guest

    Here is a photo of the place I mentioned in another pst (which seems to have disappeared, hope it shows up again).

    • Thanks for sharing this Jay. Would you be interested in drafting the story into a future guest post on the blog?

      • Jay Rutherford

        Definitely. I contributed to a journal called Parenthesis a few years ago – they published my text with a couple of images. I would be happy to post something here with more of a “ghost signs” slant.

        • Great, I’ve sent you an email with more details.

  • Jay Rutherford

    Here is a close-up of the lettering I mentioned in my previous post.

    • Jay Rutherford

      Here’s what this location looks like today. I lament the disappearance of the original sign, but they were intent on renovation (understandable) and it did give me the inspiration to do this project (which includes 16 other locations).