A Tale of Two Murals (2014) is a documentary about public artworks in Atlanta. It raises important questions in relation to the conflicts that arise between public and private ownership of walls, and their contents. Much of the film can be translated directly to the presence of ghost signs on our streets, and the burning question of what, if anything, should be done with them.
The Gramophones sign in Clapham provides a good case study in this respect. It was a locally cherished relic of a former business that was abruptly painted over by the landlord. This caused an outcry, provoking local council and political responses, but the whitewash remains.
One of the big issues with protecting ghost signs, aside from how to practically do it, is selecting those that are worthy. What some see as an artwork, others perceive to be an eyesore. I do think that some could be swayed if the age and history of individual signs were explained to them, but the point remains that they aren’t to everyone’s taste.
However, as Rachel Jackson observes in her chapter in our book, “historic signs belong to the local community and the urban cultural environment” and they “usually have aesthetic qualities and, in some cases, may demonstrate creative or technical excellence in their execution.” She advocates for a move away from ‘buildings only’ heritage towards processes that better reflect the communities for whom protection and conservation serves.
Jackson goes on to propose the harnessing of modern social media and communications technology to identify and assess historic signs worthy of listing and conserving. This is in contrast to traditional assessment methods which are lengthy and time-consuming. This would clearly work well in the case of pre-existing ghost signs, but perhaps not so well in the commissioning of new works as shown in the film above, where the reaction typically comes after the work has been produced.
While I am enamoured with ghost signs, I have never pro-actively undertaken direct action to see them ‘saved’. My belief is that ultimately those that own the host buildings are the ones that will decide what happens to them, and so informing them of the historic value of their painted walls is the best long-term strategy. This can be done directly, or through efforts to raise the profile of the subject and, by doing so, increasing general public understanding of the signs and their value. If they are perceived as akin to having a Banksy on ones building, then they will be looked after.