Ghostsigns: Talking Walls of Hackney

The ghostsign on Stoke Newington Church Street that recieved “listed” status as a cultural landmark

What originally sparked your interest in ghostsign hunting?

Working in the advertising industry must have sensitised me to noticing my first one, which was the famous Fountain Pens sign on Stoke Newington Church Street. I was fascinated that people would paint such a large-scale piece of advertising, and also that pen repairs was a viable service. The sign dates from the mid-1920s and is an example of ‘privilege’ advertising, signage on a retailer/distributor paid for by a bigger brand. The contemporary equivalent is newsagents’ signage paid for by companies whose products are available there e.g. The Sun, Mars, Coke etc.

Dating this sign has been possible through the use of archival photography, street directory records, and the use of contemporary press advertising for the big brand which is Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen. These are all techniques that I use in my research with varying degrees of success for individual signs. The sign itself has now received ‘Local Listed’ status, as a result of efforts by the Hackney Society, Hackney Council and English Heritage.

After spotting this first sign I saw a handful more soon afterwards. I was ‘tuned into the frequency’ and this is something I try to pass on through the walking tour. Once you spot, you can’t stop. My small collection of 4–5 signs back in 2006 was shared with friends and family and I had a great response. Most people knew of other locations and that’s what set me off on the road I’ve been on ever since, capturing, recording and researching signs around the world.

Do your ghostsign tours vary at all? How do you determine what to focus on for each tour?

The route for the tours in Stoke Newington is the same, although I made a few omissions for an edited version for the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in June 2015. What I say about the signs at each stop does vary depending on what themes the group seem most interested in. Sometimes things can take more of a local history angle, while others see me talk more about advertising and design history, or the practice of signwriting. All of these topics get touched on within every tour, it’s just a slight shift in emphasis based on the questions I’m being asked and the direction these lead later stops on the route. I think if I said everything I could about every sign then the tour would take a full day, rather than the more manageable two hours that it does.

The tour was originally ‘prototyped’ using a History Pin map.

What’s your favourite ghostsign?

The fountain pens one above is one I keep coming back to because it has so many layers of interest, and was the first one I’d ever noticed. However, the Black Cat Cigarettes on in Clerkenwell probably steals top place at the moment because of its scale, the use of two illustrated elements, and the local historical significance that it holds. That part of London was once home to the tobacco industry and the sign is on the former site of Carreras, who left to set up in the bespoke premises that are now Greater London House in Mornington Crescent. The black cat of the brand was after the actual black cat that used to hang out in Carreras’ Soho cigar shop.

Black Cat Cigarettes ghostsign in Clerkenwell

What are your goals for the project? Future plans?

In 2007 I started leaning towards efforts to have ghostsigns listed and protected. I soon realised that this is immensely time consuming, involving the writing of letters and attending planning meetings etc. I came to the conclusion that the people who have the most influence over whether a sign survives are the owners of the buildings they are hosted on. My efforts since then have been to raise the profile of ghostsigns so that landlords will appreciate the value of the antiques fading gradually on their bricks.

Next year will see the publication of a collection of essays from contributors around the world, considering the topic and the various areas of study that it touches on. This is being produced by Routledge and I’m on the editorial team alongside two academics from Melbourne, Australia.

Also in the pipeline are two new tours, one walking in South London, and the other bicycle based in South Hackney and East Islington. I don't really have an ultimate goal, just an interest in pursuing projects that develop mine and others' understanding and appreciation of ghostsigns.

How did your initiative into sign painting, Better Letters, begin?

I used to receive enquiries from people seeking signwritten work. It struck me that there wasn’t an easy way to find good quality craftspeople and so the original idea was to create a directory of signwriters from around the world. This then evolved into the concept of a lettering agency, providing access to good work around the world. The workshops side of Better Letters happened more by accident than design. To coincide with the screening of Sign Painters last year, Ash Bishop from the Brilliant Sign Company suggested I get Mike Meyer from the film to come over and run a workshop. This was so well received that I have continued to help Mike develop this side of his work, acting in effect as his manager/agent for the classes.

Better Letters and Ghostsigns are two sides of the same coin for me. The former embraces and promoted contemporary signwriting and lettering, while the latter is concerned with researching and documenting where the craft has come from in terms of its history.

Mike Meyer at the recent signpainting workshop organized by Better Letters

The ghostsigns tours were recently awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, and as someone who’s been on a tour with Sam I highly recommend it. One of the things impressed upon us during the tour was that as some of the signs are 135 years old, if it were a piece of jewelry or an antique it would be worth loads of money, but there it is just fading and crumbling on the walls of our public streets. As well as the ability of ghostsigns to reveal the many lives of seemingly ordinary buildings that you walk past on the street every day.

You can learn more about the project and book a tour on the ghostsigns website. Some exciting new locations for tours are being researched, including South of the river in and around Borough Market for the London Design Festival in September, and a cycling tour in Hoxton/Spitalfields/Clerkenwell.

Also, if it’s the artistic lettering of signpainting that inspires you, enquire about a workshop where you can be trained by the master letterer himself, Mike Meyer.