Ghostsigns of Britain


The UK History of Advertising Trust has initiated a ghostsigns archive to document old painted billboards - the kind you see on the sides of brick buildings, fading away unnoticed. These old signs are being destroyed daily (by gentrification, new construction, and new billboards being put over them), and very few new ones are being created (for an example, see my previous post on the artists behind the Stella Artois mural in NYC).


Unfortunately, preserving such signs permanently is difficult - and, some argue, not even desirable:

The core dilemmas are that they are not architectural features, integral to buildings, and they vary in quality from artwork to eyesore. It would seem that efforts to protect them through legal means are likely to be in vain. Michael Copeman, on behalf of Kate Hoey MP, noted in August 2007: "the character of things like this is essentially ephemeral, and it is the fact that such things survive only rarely and accidentally that gives them their charm and fascination. Although their loss may be regretted, perhaps it is necessary to allow such changes to happen, untouched by a regulatory framework, so that in another hundred years time, people may be able to look at different but equally curious survivals - of early 21st century ephemera." (Sam Roberts, "Ghostsigns: saving our hand painted advertising," The Ephemerist vol. 148 p. 14)

That would certainly be true if we were still making painted billboards - but those are rare, and the disposable, transient types of advertising we see now are unlikely to last a hundred years. So kudos to the archive contributors for taking photos now, while the signs are still readable and enjoyable.

More ghostsigns from the archive below the fold. . .










All images are from the ghostsigns archive, where you can find larger versions, location information, and photographer information. Photo credits (not in order): Amy Barnes, Sam Roberts, Sarah Norris, Katy Stoddard, Morag McFarland, Jane Parker, John Grogan, Caroline Bunford, and Jessica Mulley.

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Makes me wonder what (if any) desire we'll have to preserve our old billboards over here. Should the more enterprising among us start stockpiling last year's "Red Lobster" or "Dave & Buster's" or "Chik-Fil-A" cow signs?
Admittedly, this task would better apply to stick-on posters, paint-jobs or murals in downtown areas, but it does make one think. Today's garbage, with a little seasoning, might be tomorrow's expensive, nostalgic garbage. I've seen "American Pickers"... people will always want to find the intersection of art and history, even if we don't care for it in its infancy. As we get older, we may be comforted by the more mundane reminders of our past.

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(on countless barns on countless roads, once; rare as hen's teeth today.)

Wonderful images! One of my many schemes that had to be tossed onto the back burner with all the others was to travel the country (US) photographing similar signs. Even though I had no publishing experience I thought of selling the idea as a coffee table book and getting an advance to travel; if I was independently wealthy I would have pursued that idea.

Sign painting as a whole is such a rapidly declining art form; most signs are not hand-painted today. I learned the techniques and did it as a part-time job for a while even as it was becoming irrelevant. I never got really good though, that just takes years and years of practice. Although I did mostly paper signs I did some trucks and one building.

I tried to learn to make the vinyl, laser-cut signs but it was frustrating and not nearly as satisfying. I still have some cool books and samples, but appreciation of the art form today certainly has a bittersweet edge.

I just had this odd thought. When I saw this post on ghostsigns, it immediately made me think of the modern British street artist, Banksy. He paints his works on the side of a building in the middle of the night and they sell for millions.

To me, the difference between modern fine art and modern commercial art is so indistinct. And maybe that's all for the good. After seeing this post, it made me think it would be awfully funny if Banksy's "very important" art works at their heart are inspired by the transitory nature of ghostsigns. It's just fun to think about.

Wow, these are some cool photos. I agree that it seems unlikely these billboards will remain intact for years. But the photos are a great idea. It's interesting to see how advertising messages have changed ... and remained the same!

Being one to always turn over the leaf, what about the signs that are part of buildings? :-) Iâm too busy (or lazy) to locate some, but the sort like those that present the proprietor and the year the business was established; some give the name of the business, etc. I realise they're not in the same "league" as billboard art, but I like it when people preserve these and feature them rather than hide or remove them. (With exceptions, as ever.)