21 Jul 2013

Faux ghostsigns, authenticity and the passage of time: Guest post from Best Dressed Signs

Faux ghostsign for Cinquecento cafe
Photo: Best Dressed Signs

‘Faux’ ghostsigns are a relatively new phenomenon but are appearing with increasing frequency around the world. I invited Meredith Kasabian, of Boston’s Best Dressed Signs and The Pre-Vinylite Society, to share her thoughts given her and Josh Luke’s recent work on the example above.

Several months ago, Josh and I received a request to paint a faux ghost sign in an alleyway for a restaurant called Cinquecento in Boston’s South End – a neighbourhood known for its abundance of authentic ghost signs, most likely painted between 1850 and 1950. The designer wanted the sign to look authentically antique – like the sign (and hence the restaurant) had been there for many years and the modern neighbourhood had grown up around it. He achieved this effect by cutting off the tops of the letters to make the sign appear as though the ceiling that connected the two buildings on either side of the alleyway had been built years after the sign had been painted. The desired effect was an evocation of longevity – even though the restaurant was highly anticipated and opened in a premium location which had housed another popular (yet short-lived) restaurant in the years previous to the opening of Cinquecento.

We were happy to produce the sign for the client and pleased with the outcome, but, as contemporary sign painters who strive to produce quality, vibrant, and modern signs, we couldn’t help but feel a little strange about producing an intentionally weathered sign. Also, the use of a faux ghost sign as a way to achieve an appearance of authenticity seems like an ironic and impossible endeavour, as authenticity, by definition, cannot be contrived. Though the definition of the word “authentic” is open to interpretation, many would agree with the first entry on dictionary.com, which states that something authentic is “not false or copied.” This definition suggests that authenticity requires originality. The second definition supports this connection between authenticity and originality by denoting authenticity as “having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence”.

An “authentic” ghost sign is considered authentic because its origins can be verified as being from a certain date. Even an “authentic diamond” requires the support of an authority that originally defined the characteristics of a diamond. So if origin is a defining factor of authenticity, it follows that authenticity can never be far removed from the concept of a linear progression of time – an origin must be established in order for authenticity or authentication to be achieved or proven later on in time.

Damon Styer of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco acknowledges the difficulty of defining authenticity in his artist statement for the shop’s 2011 “Genuine Authentic Hand Painted Signs” show at San Francisco’s Summit Gallery. He explains that,

“[f]or better or worse, everything we produce at New Bohemia Signs is ultimately realized at the end of a hand-held paint brush. We are limited, I suppose, by our choice of tools, and the quality of our practice. The ‘weak link’ in our production line is in our capacity to render an internally envisioned ideal, with our given set of body parts. I have to guess that that point of reduction, to humanity, to human frailty, is where we’re able to lay any claim to authenticity in what we do.”

For Styer, the origin or ultimate authority that resides at the core of his genuine, authentic, hand-painted signs is the human body itself, the “human frailty” that defines our mortality and the passage of time that accompanies it. As linear time begins at an origin and progresses towards an ultimate death, an anxiety of mortality is inextricably linked to the passage of time – that same passage of time that allows us to define authenticity.

The fairly recent vogue for faux ghost signs speaks to the desire to capture the complex emotional responses that viewing authentic ghost signs arouse, the most commonly perceived of which is a nostalgia for an era that the viewer has likely not experienced first-hand. But for me, the very appeal of a ghost sign is in its spectral appearance – not in the memory of an actual time that has passed. In contemplating the fascination that a ghost sign conjures, I don’t necessarily feel a yearning for the time when the sign was freshly painted, but I do lament the passage of time that has brought the sign to its current, ghostly state. It’s this recognition of the passage of time – the changing contexts and environment that have transformed the essence of the sign, but not the sign itself – that appeals to me when I see an authentic ghost sign. The steadfast nature of the sign, despite its weathered appearance, evokes a sense of an authentic origin that is far removed from the sign in its present state but still discernible. The trace of this origin infuses me with a sense of melancholy that’s normally associated with nostalgia, but is really an expression of anxiety concerning my own mortality at the sight of authenticity.

Sam Roberts and Sebastian Groes discuss the phenomenon of repainting ghost signs in their article, “Ghost Signs: London’s fading Spectacle of History“. Though this act of conservation is exactly opposite to the construction of a faux ghost sign, both practices strive to produce what Roberts and Groes call a “naïve nostalgia”, a kind of contrived connection to a past that’s either artificially preserved or never existed at all. In both instances (an “authentic” ghost sign that’s been repainted to appear modern or a faux ghost sign that’s been constructed to look antique) the sign loses this sense of “authenticity” by attempting to cheat the natural progression of time. The appeal of genuine ghost signs exists in the layers of time – in the form of grit or fading – that make the sign appear “ghosted” but not dead. An attempt to obscure or accelerate this linear progression denies the viewer a contemplation of his own mortality and a glimpse at real authenticity.

– Meredith Kasabian, Best Dressed Signs and The Pre-Vinylite Society

Thank you Meredith for this fascinating perspective on the authenticity of faux and repainted ghostsigns, and also the allure of ghostsigns in the first place. I think this could be the start of an interesting exploration and discussion of these themes here on the blog and in the comments. What do you, the readers, think about these issues?

You can read more of Meredith’s writing on the Hand Painted Signs blog.

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