Take a walk through any city, and you’ll spot bygone advertising on buildings, walls and in alleys. Usually, you’ll come across it when a building’s outer wall sees sunlight for the first time in decades when a building next door gets torn down. It might be the name of the hardware store that used to be there, or hotel, or seafood restaurant, or restaurant near a hotel.
Before the giant billboards littering highways telling you to turn off at the next exit for a burger or ads wrapping around city buses informing you of the latest movie, old timey signs, formally called ghost signs, were once brightly painted, crisply lettered, illustrative advertisements for products, goods and services. But years of hiding and neglect can turn them into a whisper or a faint memory, and there’s some debate among artists and designers about whether to restore them or let them fade away.
Over time, these works of art have survived urban growth and development, as well as the elements, among other hardships. Less fortunate ghost signs crumble during demolition, layers of brick that served as their canvas reduced to rubble. But as the old continues to make way for the new, how much time do ghost signs have left? When they disappear, do we even notice?
Ghost signs: a primer
Faythe Levine, who wrote the book Sign Painters in 2012 and co-directed a documentary of the same title, calls sign painters the designers of their era. “They were the ad agency,” Levine told Adweek. These “wall dogs” and “snappers”—slang for sign painters—painted words and logos, and even striped gymnasium floors, according to Levine. From the 1930s to the 1950s, sign painters produced a majority of the large-scale graphics and some have lasted for close to a century because of the lead paint they used, Levine said. But the signs are fading away.
Thanks to the internet, you can still see ghost signs on social media and blogs before they disappear forever. Designer and author Nikki Villagomez began researching ghost signs in 2011, religiously posting on her blog. Her 2015 book Culture + Typography is a love letter to murals, manhole covers, neon, graffiti and ghost signs. She’s spotted ghost signs promoting local businesses, but she’s found big-name brands too, including Coca-Cola, Quaker and Nabisco (Uneeda Biscuit) in different cities across the country.
Villagomez continues to document ghost signs, spending hours walking and photographing outside of her full-time job. To those who see ghost signs as relics—old advertising from olden days—Villagomez suggests looking deeper and recognizing how important they are to the city and its identity.
“They’re almost everywhere,” Villagomez told Adweek, referencing ghost signs in older cities such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., “and are a way to embrace history.”
Ghost signs, oftentimes painted, could also be tiled or neon, as Villagomez writes in her book. But no matter the medium, standing the test of time qualifies it as a ghost sign. Faint and hard to see, chipped away and roughed up, the painted ones grab our attention, maybe more so than the brand-new because of just how tactile, and fragile, they are.
Villagomez has observed that some cities, like Charlotte, N.C., where she lives, have far fewer ghost signs. She might photograph a sign, and a month later, it’s been torn down or painted over.
Painting over ghost signs not only erases the art but, Villagomez said, upsets people, since the sign is part of each city’s unique and individual character. “These signs were at their height in the early- to mid-1900s,” she said, concurrent with the debut of and popularity of neon signs.