Ghost signs can be found throughout Saskatoon – if you look for them
You might not notice them – at first anyway – but ghosts live amongst us.
Ghost signs, the faded and tattered remnants of local advertisements and business signs that are sequestered into alleyways and tacked onto crumbling brick walls, tell the tales of times long past.
And they can be seen in Saskatoon – and the rest of the world. If you look for them.
Sam Roberts is the founder of Ghostsigns.co.uk, a website that contributes to the research and archival of the fading remains of hand-painted wall advertising. Living in London, England, Roberts, who was working in the advertising industry, spotted a ghost sign on the building wall. The sign was advertising pen repair – something that struck him as odd. “That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore,” recalls Roberts. “It was really faded as well and I realized that it wouldn’t be there forever.”
Noticing them throughout the Stoke Newington area, Roberts says he quickly developed a knack for finding these ghost signs – ads that had been hand painted directly on to the brickwork of buildings.
“Once you start to notice where they are and where they reside in the urban landscape you start to spot them everywhere and they become very apparent,” says Roberts.
The same holds true for many of Saskatoon’s ghost signs. Found throughout the core of the city, particularly in the north downtown and Riversdale areas, once you notice them they start to pop-up throughout your daily travels. And if you extend the definition beyond ads painted on walls, you’ll start to find them in some of the most unlikely places.
Not long after, Roberts began emailing others to ask them if they had every seen or heard of them. The response was overwhelming. Roberts says that friends began offering up stories of their own sightings.
“It felt like people had an emotional connection to them. Obviously, there was something to this.”
Shortly thereafter, Roberts started a website where he published photographs and articles on ghost signs. Developing a rabid following, Roberts began publishing regularly until he realized he wasn’t the best person to own the online material. He contacted the History of Advertising Trust, a UK group that documented newspaper advertisements and things that are easy to store. But a painting on a brick wall doesn’t lend itself to being stored in a museum or gallery.
“I pitched the idea of a photographic gallery where people around the country would send in their images and we could catalogue them in a coherent form,” says Roberts.
In 2010 the Ghostsigns Archive was launched, which documented hundreds of ghost signs from across the UK and the world. The site is reportedly the largest undertaking of its kind, cataloguing over 1,000 fading signs in addition to conducting walking tours.
A precursory look through Ghostsigns.co.uk reveals galleries of ghost signs from across the world, including several in Canadian cities such as Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver. A future gallery documenting Saskatoon is likely says Roberts, who feels there is more work to be done in documenting the signs.
“America is probably the world’s gold mine when it comes to ghost signs, so obviously it came up right away when I started doing research,” says Roberts. “And then when I went on to vacation in France I began noticing these signs right away due to being tuned into ghost signs. France is very prolific with these things because it seems as though a lot of the people there tend to resist development in a way that has preserved these signs.
“I quickly realized that this was something that was going on all over the world.”
In addition to the local research, the walking tours and a 2014 Ghostsigns calendar, which includes over 100 photos submitted from over 30 photographers representing 11 countries, Roberts says there is still a public interest in the antiquated art of signwriting. On June 28 and 29, there will be a two-day workshop in Calgary where participants will be introduced to the basic technical skills and letterforms in the signwriters toolbox, including gothic and script styles, layout and letter construction.
The Ghost Signs of Saskatoon: Photo Essay
The following is a gallery of Ghost Signs found throughout Saskatoon. It’s far from complete – the fun is going out and finding them on your own:
– The Charter House, originally built in 1911 for Tees & Persse Ltd., is one of Saskatoon’s most well-known buildings that houses several ghost signs.
– Opportunity knocks. It also fades away.
– This sign has been here for as long as I can remember. I wish I could have taken classes.
– This was once the site of the Continental Hotel on 2nd Ave. S.
– The site commonly referred to as Victory Manor on 20th Street, this building recently housed an NDP Leadership campaign, a sketchy jam space and an artists’ collective. And, of course, Joe’s Cycle.
– Found in the parking lot of Kelly’s Kafe in Saskatoon’s south industrial.
– The owners of The Hollows, a Riversdale restaurant, made a very interesting decision to keep the decor and signage of the Golden Dragon, which closed up years ago.
– The Sommerfeld Block, located at 817 Broadway Avenue, which is presently home to Bud’s on Broadway. According to sources, this building (one of two) was erected concurrently in the spring and summer of 1912. Despite the faded nature of the sign, Sentinel Mortgage is still operating.
– Dedicated to Rene for your continued inspiration in urban exploration.