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Birmingham Ghost Signs

Battery Charger, Small Heath, Birmingham

Why I spent several years photographing Birmingham's faded ghost signs

Faded hand-painted ghost signs are remnants of old advertising that were once prominently displayed on the sides of buildings. These signs, created using traditional sign painting techniques, have become weathered and partially faded over time, earning them the name "ghost signs."

These signs hold great importance in relation to urban spaces and collective memory for several reasons. Firstly, they serve as historical documentation, offering insights into the commercial and cultural history of a place. The names of businesses, products, or services found on ghost signs reflect the past presence of these entities within the local community.

Secondly, ghost signs contribute to the sense of place and identity of a neighborhood or city. They act as visual markers that reflect the architectural and cultural heritage of an area. Preserving these signs helps maintain a connection to the past and reinforces a community's collective memory.

Thirdly, ghost signs hold cultural and aesthetic value. They are often considered artistic expressions, showcasing traditional hand-painted lettering and typography. The faded colors and peeling paint add a unique beauty to these signs, making them distinctive features of the urban landscape.

Efforts to preserve ghost signs contribute to the overall preservation and conservation of urban heritage. These signs are vulnerable to deterioration and demolition as buildings are renovated or demolished. Documenting, restoring, and protecting ghost signs help retain the tangible remnants of the past, enriching the fabric of urban spaces.

Lastly, ghost signs engage communities by evoking nostalgia and memories among local residents. They become points of conversation and storytelling, fostering a sense of community engagement and cultural exchange. Ghost signs serve as shared references, connecting different generations and reinforcing the collective memory of a place.

In summary, faded hand-painted ghost signs are important elements of urban spaces. They provide historical documentation, contribute to the identity of a place, hold cultural and aesthetic value, aid in preservation and conservation efforts, and foster community engagement and collective memory.

The independent photographic survey, which began in 2011, documented approximately 180 extant hand-painted ghost signs. Among these signs, a small number dated back over 150 years, originating from the latter part of the nineteenth century. The majority of the surviving signs, however, were from the early to mid-twentieth century.

I made a series of ten monochrome screen prints of some of the ghost signs found in Jewellery Quarter, Hockley area, and Digbeth. These were exhibited at The Hive Gallery in Birmingham in an exhibition called Faded City, in 2020.

Harry Smith Ironmongers (2019) screen-print on GF Smith paper 594 x 841 mm print from the series Faded City. Limited edition prints and small zines are available contact the artist for more information.

Read more on a blog about these prints here

Selected photographic images from Tracey Thorne's collection of Birmingham Ghost Signs.


© Tracey Thorne
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