The Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). Every other Wednesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE Volume 17

When I was a tween, one Saturday afternoon, my dad and I went to the barbershop to get our hair cut. Outside the shop, an elderly man was standing there painting a new sign on the replaced plate glass window (which vandals had recently smashed). Walking by, I was mesmerized by the painter, deep in a kind of Zen-like concentration as he worked, his large, beat-up and paint-smeared wooden toolbox overflowing with brushes and small cans of paint, his palette, his maul stick, all of it was so novel and wondrous to me.

Inside the barbershop, as my dad got his hair cut, and then as I got mine, sitting in the cast iron barber’s chair (which also always fascinated me) right by the window, I was transfixed, watching the painter work. I couldn’t get over the idea that those nearly perfect letterforms, with their thick drop shadows, and the starbursts and other ornaments he was so effortlessly creating — all flowed so confidently from his hand, held steady by the maul stick pressed to the glass. It looked like flourishes of magic. I’d already been interested in art and graphic design by then, but this experience made me become even more interested in pursuing commercial art as a career (which I ended up doing). It’s amazing how, in one’s life, a small, seemingly mundane encounter like this can have such a disproportional impact. I still think about that elderly signwriter (what sign painters are called), outside the small town barbershop in Chesterfield, Virginia, every time I see a handpainted sign.

But these signs and building-side advertisements (sometimes called “brickads”) are very much a fading artform. But like a lot of dead or dying media, the form has found an avid and growing following online. There are a number of Flickr pools devoted to old and new handpainted signage, and online archives of “ghostsigns,” signs from decades (or centuries) past that are all but fading away. The art of the “walldog,” a slang term for signwriters, will not be forgotten. And like a lot of retro commercial arts, such as letterpress printing, there are some who claim that handpainted signs are even making a comeback.

Here are a few resources to check out:

Video about a recent Dewar’s ad campaign where six classical hand-painted brickads were created around New York City.

This UK site has a huge collection of ghostsigns and blog entries about the signs and fascinating backstories about the companies that were doing the advertising. Most of the signs are from the late 19th century. And as you might imagine, they’re all fading fast, not only from the elements, but as the buildings are razed or signs painted over. The ghostsign enthusiasts out there are racing to document as many signs as they can.


The folks who run the Ghostsigns Project and blog sell a lovely set of postcards featuring some of their favorite examples.

A piece, on ghostsign “hunters” in Liverpool, England which recently ran on ITV Granada television.

The main Flickr pool devoted to handpainted signs, both contemporary and antique.

HandMade Signs
Another, less active, Flickr group.


Roadside Advertisements
Another site devoted to handpainted signs, brickads, and billboards.

Edward Fella’s website
Site of artist, graphic designer, and educator, Edward Fella, author of Edward Fella: Letters on America, an exploration of American vernacular typography and the landscape of signage.