This is the home of Ghostsigns, a research and publishing initiative to photograph, archive and promote awareness of the fading remains of hand-painted wall advertising a.k.a. ghostsigns. Started by London resident Sam Roberts in 2006, the project has undertaken a number of initiatives over the last seven years and continues to inspire amateurs and professionals alike to appreciate the painted history found on walls around the world.
A Brief History
2007: Launch of the Ghostsigns blog publishing regularly on ghostsigns and related topics such as signwriting, history, art, lettering and design. There are now over 500 posts, covering every continent, with more added every month.
2010: Launch of the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive, documenting hundreds of ghostsigns from across the UK and Ireland. This was the largest undertaking of its kind in the world and continues to grow through public contributions.
2012: Publication of Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, a celebration of Cambodia’s hand-crafted street advertising.
2013: Walking tours of Stoke Newington, focused on the area’s ghostsigns, start operating.
2013: Photography from around the world is captured for the 2014 Ghostsigns Calendar. 103 photos submitted from over 30 photographers representing 11 countries. These are being voted for on the Facebook Page to select the final 12 for inclusion in the calendar.
2014 and Beyond: Projects to be confirmed including taking the research into ghostsigns further to PhD level. Suggestions and collaborations are always welcomed (firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 7989 409 046).
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 the project 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 create a permanent record of their existence for the benefit of our own and future generations’ understanding of this important but often overlooked part of our commercial, craft and advertising history. The work of pulling this together is co-ordinated among photographers, researchers and other volunteers via the web. Key outputs include: the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive; the Ghostsigns Flickr Group; the Ghostsigns Calendar; and the Ghostsigns Facebook Page.
Where can I find out more and get involved?
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.