Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 7989 409 046
If you’re interested in the fading remains of signs painted on walls then you’ve come to the right place. These ‘ghostsigns’ offer fascinating insights into advertising, craft and local history but are under constant threat from the elements and processes of urban renewal. This site is part of a wider effort to raise awareness and understanding of ghostsigns, through research, publishing and events, including tours. It’s all done by me, Sam Roberts, a.k.a. Mr Ghostsigns.
I have been researching ghostsigns since 2006 when I spotted my first one close to home in Stoke Newington, London. My work since then has involved numerous projects and initiatives, including:
- The Ghostsigns Walking Tour, taking visitors out on the streets to see and lean about the signs;
- The Ghostsigns Blog, 500+ pieces on signs from around the world;
- The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive, a growing collection of UK and Ireland ghostsigns;
- A Book About Ghostsigns, a global academic collaboration with Victoria University in Melbourne;
- Writing for numerous books, local, national and trade publications;
- Talks to academic and professional audiences, including a schools workshop;
- TV & Radio appearances (e.g. The One Show, London Live, Londonist, and BBC Radio 4);
- Better Letters, promoting the work of contemporary signwriters and lettering artists, and promoting workshops for those wanting to learn these skills;
- Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, documenting the history of Cambodia’s hand-painted signs.
I am available for walks, talks, interviews, writing commissions, image licensing and research collaborations. Some nice things people have said about these can be seen below. Contact me via email@example.com or call +44 7989 409 046 to discuss your requirements.
The Ghostsigns mailing list is the best way to keep informed of developments in the world of ghostsigns. It is sent 3-4 times per year and features research highlights, events and forthcoming publications.
“Sam is highly personable and delivers an interesting and engaging workshop, appreciated very much by both students and staff.” – Carolyn Shapiro, Lecturer, University College Falmouth
“An excellent and really interesting walk. The ghostsigns are brought back to life by Sam’s research into the history of the signs and the buildings they are on, backed up by photographs showing how they looked when first created.” – Chris on TripAdvisor
“One of my highlights this week was attending a talk I’d been waiting to see for a very long time – Ghost Signs by Sam Roberts, at the gorgeous St Bride Library.” – Zoe Chan, Uber Baby Graphic
“The session enabled them [pupils] to understand and appreciate the importance of the history that surrounds us on our streets. They particularly loved the chance to get actively involved with living history. Your delivery style was perfect: warm, humorous and knowledgeable. We’d love to have you back at our school in the future!” – Andrea Wright, Deputy Head Teacher, New Stead Wood School
More About Ghostsigns
What are Ghostsigns?
Ghostsigns are the typically faded remains of advertising that was once painted by hand onto the brickwork of buildings. They can be found in cities, towns and villages across the world advertising many different products and services, some familiar, some less so.
A ghostsign for Black Cat cigarettes
Where can they be found?
There are examples all across the world including France, Australia, the USA, UK and Netherlands. While these countries provide lots of examples from the past you can also find fresh signs being painted in many parts of the world including India, Mexico, Jamaica, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In more developed countries they tend to be most common in former industrial centres, although you will also find them in the smallest country villages. The key to finding them is paying attention to the buildings you pass and looking up as they are often situated high on the walls.
Map plotting over 600 signs from the project
When were they painted?
Using walls as a canvas for signs has a long history dating back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. The preserved ruins at Pompeii have painted lettering that can still be seen today. While it is difficult to accurately date ghostsigns, they are broadly placed in the later years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. From the 1950s onwards the economics of production swung in favour of mass-printed posters and billboards. It is unusual to find hand-painted signs produced after this time, although there has recently been a resurgence of interest in them resulting in increased demand and companies starting up to meet this need.
A brothel advertised in Pompeii
How were they produced?
The signs were painted by skilled craftsmen known as signwriters, or ‘walldogs’ in some parts of the USA. While the work available has been in significant decline, some are still plying the trade. There are many different techniques employed in producing the signs and each signwriter would have carried out the task in a different way. Smaller signs could be produced freehand, sometimes using the mortar lines in the brick to measure the height of the letters. Another common method was using a spiked wheel to perforate the lines of a design into a sheet of paper. This could then be placed on the wall and patted with charcoal or chalk dust to leave an outline which could be filled in with paint. Depending on the skill of the signwriter, and the budget of the client, a sign could include many flourishes including illustrations and other decorative elements.
Signwriters at work
Who used them to advertise?
Businesses of all types and sizes once used hand-painted advertising to publicise themselves. These included smaller local companies who may have had a sign painted on their premises, all the way up to big brands such as Gillette and Hovis who paid for signs across the UK. There are also many examples of signs that have outlived the company or product being advertising, Peterkin’s Custard and Black Cat cigarettes (see picture above) for example.
Shop sign, Norwich
Photo: Keith Roberts
Why is this initiative happening?
Many signs have survived until today but many more have been lost due to weathering, being painted over or their host building being destroyed. Ghostsigns exists to document and research those that are still around with the aim of raising awareness and understanding of these pieces of public history on our streets. This is done through research, writing, publishing, talks and tours, in addition to the ongoing archival work at the History of Advertising Trust.
Where can I find out more and get involved?
There are lots of resources available on this site including links to a number of articles and videos about the initiative.
You can get in touch via email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org, of via any of the sites here.
If you have photos that you would like to offer to the project or information about particular signs then click here to find out more about getting involved.