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.
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.