Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Revitalizing, Re-purposing, and Re-living the “Ghosts” of Philly.

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with the forgotten beauty of withered and once vibrant signs. Like a faded-decades old tattoo, they represent a time in history, a feeling, a culture or simply a small business. Some are considered "Ghost signs" generally defined as painted signage, at least 50 years old, on an outside wall that publicizes a defunct business or product, according to Lawrence O’Toole, author of “Fading Ads of Philadelphia.” Highly intriguing these signs are an intersection of art, history and commerce. Some, like us designers, are captivated by the fonts and graphics, representing the nearly lost tradition of sign painting. While others appreciate the ads as history, telling stories about how things used to be, the businesses that once powered a neighborhood or the provenance of a building. Philadelphia has no shortage of ghost signs, left over from its two centuries as an industrial juggernaut. Some have been reincarnated in surprising ways.

A resurgence of interest in vintage signage has influenced the popularity of some trendy typefaces. The often student forbidden, however stylish type collective, Lost Type offers quite a few of these styles that are extremely similar if not a direct nod to the unique and often hand-done type faces of ghost signs. 

Some examples of some trendy type and photos local vintage signs that I have taken, see the similarities?  

More recently these signs are often re-vitalized at the hands of The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program or at least in partner with them.  Just last year Tyler's own Robert Blackson created a partnership with the PMAP to resurrect ghost signs around North Philadelphia.  In 2013, Blackson walked into the store of John Henssler, locksmith and owner of the century old business and simply asked if her wanted his sign repainted. Henssler thought he was pulling his leg, but Blackson said that he was inspired by the signs fleeting beauty as he passed it everyday on his way to Tyler. This then sparked the start of the ghost sign revitalization project, with other sites on the to-do list. This not only renews the vintage art that once stood prominent on the dilapidated walls of the city and creates something that is visually interesting, but creates a a renewed civic pride for the neighborhood.

The Philly Mural Arts Program and Tyler School of Art partnership's first gig:
Robert Blackson (Tyler), Nathaniel Lee(PMAP), and several Tyler Students
Henssler Locksmith sign, North Philadelphia

Speaking of things like local pride, supporting small businesses, and partnering up with The Mural Arts Program, The Famous project "A Love Letter for You" immediately comes to mind. One of my favorite things in the city and a sign painting and typographical masterpiece takes viewers that ride the EL train on a journey through the poetry of Stephen Powers and the story behind this is just as interesting. Steve Powers, somtimes known as ESPO (exterior surface painting outreach), is a world re-nowned public artist and sign painter but it wasn't always this way.  Powers grew up in the Overbrook section of West Philly and in the 1980's when The Mural Arts Program was hard at work to cover up the "unsightly" graffiti that littered the walls of the city, Powers or ESPO at the time was battling against them.  This relationship continued until years and many accolades later he returned home and contacted the Philly Mural Arts Program to created a "typographic poem of the complexities and rewards of relationships", which also acted as an ironic nod to the story between him and PMAP.  It consists of 50 murals that were painted traditionally, meant to deteriorate with time and weather, one day making them ghost signs themselves. The walls that words are painted on are all small local buisnesses of a community that is suffering in hopes that it would bring a revitalization to the area. 

see the youtube video of A Love Letter for You here and here and here

-Dani Birnbohm


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