He’s been called the “London authority on hand-painted signs” (Finding the Radio Book) and “ghost signs expert from London” (The Age), but Sam Roberts chuckles at such grandiose titles. He just happens to be a character who especially loves the fading hand-painted signage of yesteryear, and it turns out that he’s far from alone in this regard. His blog, Ghostsigns, has built up a respectable following, and has even been featured by The Guardian, London Glossy Post, and Londonist, to name a few. In today’s post, Sam is kind enough to educate the uninitiated about his past work, as well as introducing us to his newest project – Better Letters.
You’re known as “a ghost signs expert from London”. What is a ghost sign, and how did you first get involved in this area?
‘Expert’ is always a dangerous thing to be known as but it is true that I have been writing about and researching ghost signs since 2006. As to what they are, there is no settled answer, although I use the term to refer to the fading remains of advertising once painted by hand directly onto the brickwork of buildings.
I started to notice these where I live in London and was soon photographing them when I realised that they wouldn’t be around forever. One thing led to another and, in 2009-10, I coordinated a project to document this historic form of advertising. The result was the History of Advertising Trust Ghost Signs Archive, a free searchable photographic archive of hundreds of examples from the UK and Ireland.
I’ve worked in and around the advertising and creative industries for the last 12 years so I guess I was more sensitised to noticing the signs. That said, the remarkable thing I discovered after finding out about them was how much of a chord they strike with everyone. Just mentioning what I was talking about to friends and family often draw responses such as “There’s a great one at the end of my road.” or “There’s one in my home town but I never knew they had a name.”. This suggests they have a resonance beyond just sign aficionados and advertising folk, like ourselves.
I continue to research and write about ghost signs on my blog and am currently thinking of how the archiving project here in the UK could be expanded to cover ghost signs across the world. For example, I was very pleased to find so many in Melbourne on a tour of the city from Stefan Schutt of Finding the Radio Book earlier this year. I’d like to see a global mapping of the signs alongside some of the great research that people do into the locations and businesses being advertised by the fading paint.
I understand you’ve also published a book on Hand-Lettering. What can you tell us about that?
In 2010 my wife and I left London to spend two years volunteering with VSO in Cambodia. This was just after I launched the ghost signs archive and so I was wondering what hand-painted signs might exists in South East Asia. I wasn’t disappointed as Cambodia has a fantastic heritage of painted street signs, something I was to discover in abundance in our home town of Kratie.
A few trips out on the motorbike with a camera led to a collection of images that I collated and researched to create the rather niche title, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie. I self-published the print book and also the eBook which is available as a free download from the book’s website,
The book was never a commercial venture. It was an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful signs that Cambodia has to offer and for me to learn a bit more about writing, researching and publishing a book. As it progressed it became a bigger project than I set out on and so I printed copies to be distributed in Cambodia. It is now available to buy there as well as direct from me. The eBook was more of an afterthought but was again a positive learning experience for me.
In this clip, Cambodian Sign-painter Chouk Rachana paints the cover for Sam’s book:
And now the big question; please fill us in on your latest project – “Better Letters” – What’s the aim with that?
Better Letters has a very simple purpose: to promote hand-crafted lettering of all forms and in all places. My work on ghost signs and the book led me to realise that there are hundreds of people around the world producing outstanding pieces of hand-crafted lettering every day. The recent release of The Sign Painter Movie and accompanying book shows just how vibrant the sign painting business is in the USA.
I wanted to do something to profile lettering artists and their work and so Better Letters does this as a directory and portfolio. It also lists events and other things of interest to those involved in creating or buying hand-crafted lettering. Lettering artists and event organisers can add their details via the links on the site’s home page.
As the ghost signs blog evolved over time I found myself writing more and more about current practice in sign-writing/painting. Better Letters provides an opportunity to give greater focus to this strand of my work and for ghost signs to regain its focus on the fascinating and ever-changing world of historic painted signs.
I’m also aware that many people offer more than just sign painting and so the idea for Better Letters is to embrace hand-crafted lettering in the broadest sense. This includes gilding, wood carving, calligraphy and even those who create lettering with quilling techniques. I think the common feature of all these lettering forms is the manual aspect of their creation, as opposed to those arising through purely digital or mechanical means. That said, I’m open to ideas from those who know far more about this stuff than me. Ultimately the platform belongs to those on it and so I’m keen to be guided by yours and their advice.
I will let the demand for each aspect of the site determine how it evolves in the future. For now I see it primarily as a forum for lettering artists to showcase their work to potential buyers but there is no doubt that people always like to check out new work from friends and competitors. This is something that The Pre-Vinylite Society is doing a great job on for sign painters so learning from their work and broadening its reach to other disciplines is definitely a direction that Better Letters could take in the future. As above, the idea is still a new one and offers flexibility for those involved to determine its direction. I’m keen to hear from anyone with ideas and feedback so that the site has value for everyone involved.
Some of the artists who have joined the project, to date:
If you want to be a part of Better Letters, Sam would love to hear from you! You can email him (email@example.com) or tweet him (@better_letters). If you do it today, wish him a happy birthday!