Sam Roberts was working in advertising and living in Stoke Newington, London, when he noticed the fading remains of advertising that was once painted by hand directly onto the brickwork of buildings. One in particular caught his attention because of it’s slogan, “Fount Pens Repaired.” This window into a time when people would get their pens repaired intrigued him, and he was soon noticing these ‘ghostsigns’ everywhere. He’s now the master of the Ghostsigns website and recently published a book on the Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, Cambodia, which is available here. I asked him to walk us through the routes he’s taken to find the roots of vintage commercial and hand painted signs.
You have cataloged ghostsigns on your blog. What are ghostsigns?
I personally focus on the fading remains of advertising once painted by hand directly onto brickwork. I think that this captures two key properties: First is their faded appearance (‘ghostly’, or less than full-bodied) and second is the way that they speak with voices from the past. However, attempts to define ghostsigns in this or other ways usually run into problems. The trading status of the company is one of these, some people arguing that it can only be a ghostsign if the company is no longer in business.
The means of production can be another sticking point, with a broader definition extending to carved signs, shop fascias, enamel signs among others. The blog does focus on the fading painted variety, although does make occasional departures into other, related areas.
What prompted your interest in the hand painted Cambodian signs in particular?
Moving to Cambodia in 2010 to volunteer with my wife for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), I was interested in what I would find there in terms of painted signage. I was delighted to find a country with its own tradition of painted signs and the characteristic forms soon captivated me. Traveling around by motorbike was painfully slow due to stops to take photos of the charming painted tin signs that line the roads.
You moved to Cambodia to the town of Kratie, what did you learn there?
In addition to the language and a host of new varieties of fruit, I learned about living and working in an unfamiliar culture. However, as I tentatively conclude in the book, I believe that what emerges after time abroad is awareness of more similarities than differences from your own culture. The best thing about this is being able to borrow things you like from the differences and bring them into life ‘back home’.
Are the sign painters of Kratie trained in any way?
There is great diversity in the stories of the sign painters that I met and learned about through others. However, they typically undergo some training, although not in a formal academic sense. The passing of knowledge through apprenticeships, or from parent to offspring, mirrors that found in other parts of the world. In the case of Sai Sokheang who created the original artwork for the cover of the book, he was mentored by an artist who taught him how to draw likenesses and copy from photographs. He then progressed from this to teach himself how to produce Khmer lettering. He’s one of three sign painters in Kratie, although possibly the most prolific based on an analysis of the signs found in and around the town.
What is next for your research?
I still have a backlog of photos from other parts of Cambodia to archive and publish, in addition to examples from neighboring Laos and Vietnam. In terms of my work on ghostsigns, I’m currently developing some new publishing ventures and exploring the topic as a possible PhD. I’m particularly interested in the role they play in communities as waymarkers and pieces of local and design history. Efforts to protect, preserve and restore them are being made across the world, and I’m fascinated by the motivations that underpin these. I’m not personally interested in doing any of these things and prefer to document, research and share them through archiving projects, publishing and, most recently, walking tours.
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