Ghostly markers abound in Milwaukee, environs
Story by Faythe Levine
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Have you ever used a sign as a landmark and thought about how it got there? Who climbed up the ladder to paint it? How long ago those hand-brushed block letters were painted, telling you PRODUCE was sold in this now abandoned building? Maybe that familiar landmark you were so used to seeing one day was gone, sandblasted off the brick, or the entire building demolished. Though disappearing gradually or suddenly, these “ghost signs” often yield blatant clues to the past, in neighborhoods that are also ghosts of their former purpose.
When I was four my folks bought a van and we drove around the US and Mexico for a year. Traveling is in my blood. I connect my level of awareness to my surroundings and ability to engage with strangers directly from this early experience. Being continually on the road from an early age taught me (more by being bored and staring out the window than anything else) to pay attention to surroundings as they flew by. I remember noticing the differences, visually, from town to city, from state to state and then over the border into Mexico.
The uniqueness of a landscape is shaped by the signs that take up that space. But signs that were once all hand painted by necessity are now replaced by poorly designed vinyl banners or inkjet printouts. This more common, mass-produced signage we see has homogenized our urban surroundings, making one city visually synonymous with the next. Through the “dumbing down” of the symbolic environment we lose the sense of permanence our landscape once had; however, ghost signs offer a porthole to look back at what once was.
Letters and handwriting were an integral part of my artistic process as I established myself as an artist in my early twenties. As my own appreciation for letters grew, I began to realize the much larger importance of their message was beyond advertising and my own aesthetic. The job of a sign painter isn’t always about creating eye-popping, flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned over time that transform a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.
It’s time to give the signs in our city the recognition they deserve. To acknowledge their influence on our public space and consciousness, and how these hand-painted signs define and shape the character of our city.
Do you have a favorite ghost sign you’d like to share?
Feel free to send a picture of it, with a small description of its location and what you know of its former purpose, to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll put it up on our website, and possibly print in a future Edible issue. OR… if you have an old photo that shows classic city signage, we’d love to share it with our readers.
Faythe Levine works as an independent researcher, multi-media artist, curator, author and collector based in Milwaukee. Sign Painters, her second book published by Princeton Architectural Press (2012), and independent documentary (2013), is about the trade of traditional hand lettering in America. Levine’s personal artwork and writing has been published and exhibited internationally in both formal and renegade outlets. She keeps track of her work with slightly obsessive updates via various social media channels and visually on her website where she documents her community-based projects, travels and experiences.
Joe Laedtke has been a life-long food enthusiast, starting when he was still a kid growing up in Washington Heights, watching his grandma Shirley intently as she taught him her secret recipes for onion dip, turkey gravy, and rouladen, and even through college as he delivered pizzas throughout the greater Ripon area in a 1978 AMC Pacer. These days, he proudly represents the unique combination of freelance photographer and licensed funeral director, and has garnered national attention with his website, Eating Milwaukee, including a segment on CBS This Morning. He has absolutely no willpower whatsoever around essentially any Asian cuisine.