Coca-Cola has always understood the value of effective advertising and widespread distribution as key components of their marketing strategy. The historical evidence for this can be found in the fading remains of their painted signs across the world. These "ghost" signs once played a key role in establishing the strength of the brand, its instant recognition and ubiquitous presence.

Black Cat Cigarettes
Black Cat Cigarettes, Dingley Road, London

Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Coca-Cola was not the only company to make use of the medium of painted signs on walls. In fact, there are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these fading relics of advertising past around the world. I have been documenting and researching them since first noticing one back in 2006 in my hometown of London, and have since seen examples from every continent.

Propaganda, Cần Thơ, Vietnam
Propaganda, Cần Thơ, Vietnam

The fascination for me is two-fold. First is the historical intrigue the ghost signs offer. They are windows into a time that many of us have never experienced, and they have survived, accidentally, into the modern era. Second is the skill that went into creating these large-scale mural advertisements. The sign painters that did this type of work were known as ‘Walldogs’ in the United States, because they had to work like dogs at dangerous heights, in all weather.

Ogilvy on Advertising, p.35
Ogilvy on Advertising, p.35

My work on ghost signs over the last 11 years has been quite diverse, starting initially in 2007 with a blog I continue to publish. It features collections of ghost signs from my travels, reviews of books, stories of loss (and gain), and mysteries I need help solving. It also shares interesting examples, including this mirrored Coca-Cola sign in Portland, OR.

Warings, Shepperton Road, London
Warings, Shepperton Road, London

I have been involved in archiving projects, including the History of Advertising Ghostsigns Archive which features a Coca-Cola ghost sign in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The archive is a growing resource of ghost signs across the UK and Ireland, currently documenting over 1,000 locations. The project was brought together through a crowd-sourcing methodology and continues to accept submissions from members of the public. Longer term I hope to take this concept further with an international mapping project.

Stoke Newington Church Street, London (as featured on my walking tours)
Stoke Newington Church Street, London (as featured on my walking tours)

Through my archiving work, I became interested in doing deeper research into the history of individual signs, and this came together with the development of my walking tours. I lead these in person, but they are also available remotely through the mobile app. For me, it is important to experience the signs at street level, which I think is a superior experience to simply looking at them on screens. The app makes use of google street view which sits somewhere in between the two.

Bankside Ghostsigns Walk

I’ve also turned my hand to editorial work for an academic book on ghost signs. This is truly international in scope, and features articles from academics and practitioners discussing the theme of ghost signs from different perspectives. As part of the project I finally got to write an article that was long overdue, an attempt to answer the question, "What is a Ghost Sign?"

Tanner Street, London
Tanner Street, London

Mike Marchlewski

Stoke Newington Church Street, London
Stoke Newington Church Street, London

Mike Marchlewski

Last year I acted as a producer for the brilliant Light Capsules project from Craig Winslow, helping him to bring it to the UK for the London Design Festival. Through this project, he has been recreating the graphics present on ghost signs and using light to project these back onto the original signs at night, helping to see them as they would once have looked.

Craig’s project raises important questions about what, if anything, should be done about ghost signs. The themes of protection and restoration are very contentious topics among ghost signs aficionados, and Coca-Cola is often at the heart of these debates due to the prolific nature of their painted signs. Examples include repainting projects, some extreme efforts to save signs, and more sensitive conservation approaches.

acrylicize

Nikhilesh Haval

A final project that I’d like to share relates directly to the Coca-Cola company today and involved creating ‘faux’ ghost signs for the new headquarters in London. This required liaising with the archives in Atlanta to ensure an authentic design, and then using a variety of techniques to create the aged appearance.

There is something of a vogue for faux ghost signs, and they are something that I’ve been involved with through my sister initiative, Better Letters. A recent project in London involved painting a whole series of fading murals, which I’m now being sent photos of on social media from people assuming that they are real.

Nick Braithwaite

Nick Braithwaite

If you’ve never noticed a ghost sign before then I hope that you will now start to look out for them. Typically you will find them above eye level, sometimes behind you as you pass a building. Many people describe them as being ‘hidden in plain sight’ and I have no doubt that once you start to notice them you’ll see them everywhere. I’d love to see what you discover, so please share via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email. Happy hunting!

Follow Sam's blog dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of ghost signs through research, publishing, tours and events. 

Gloria Soria

Gloria Soria