When the side of a 111-year-old brick building lit up in Winnipeg, Canada, on a recent night in July, a crowd of about 50 people looked up to see a newly vivid message that had been there all along: “Porter & Co., crockery, china, glassware, lamps, silverware, cutlery.” A few moments later, the words faded and a new message appeared: “The Home of Milady Chocolates.” This late-night light show was a seance of sorts, and Craig Winslow was the medium.
Winslow revives ghost signs, those faded hand-painted ads left to weather on the sides of old buildings in cities around the world. He doesn’t repaint the old signs; instead, he brings them back to life through light. By digging deep into historical archives, he finds what these advertisements looked like when they were fresh, digitally reconstructing them and projecting them over the faded remnants that hang there today. Many ads have several layers, so he animates each of them, briefly recalling images of a city's forgotten past for the sake of nostalgia and conversation in the community.
“The giddy, nerdy version of me is just crazy to think I’m this mad scientist opening portals in walls to what things actually used to look like,” says Winslow, an experiential designer from Portland, Oregon. He calls his digital recreations “Light Capsules.”
Ghost signs have a special place in any city. Hand-painted signs were a popular form of advertising between the 1880s and the 1950s, before ads could be inexpensively mass produced, installed, and replaced. Their remnants offer a lens into a neighborhood’s past, reminding viewers about elements of commerce and life at certain points in history. They acquaint us with the type of businesses that once lined the streets, and offer glimpses of products and services that were important at the time of the sign's painting, such as fur coats, canned hams, or the ubiquitous Coca-Cola.
“What I love, as simple as they are, is just these old worn ads that actually become a catalyst to get people excited about the local history around them,” Winslow says.
That’s how his work caught the eye of Matt Cohen, a Winnipeg-based ghost sign expert. Winnipeg has more than 150 ghost signs, especially concentrated in the historic Exchange District, a 20-block area with buildings built between 1880 and 1913. At one time, Winnipeg was known as “Chicago of the North” and was an important center for grain, finance, and manufacturing. Because of this, the Exchange District is a Canadian National Historic Site, a designation that protects the ghost signs.
Cohen invited Winslow to recreate five of the city’s signs. On the evening of July 29, the Light Capsules brought those messages from the past back to life.
“I thought it was a neat way of blending the physical and digital and exploring these in a new way that is unlike anything people have seen before,” Cohen says.
The idea to revive ghost signs came to Winslow two years ago. “I started seeing them everywhere and realized I wanted to do something with these to preserve them,” he says. “So many of them were being painted over, destroyed. They all have such a unique character to them that I wanted to do something.”
He wanted to preserve this history uniquely, but he had no idea how he was going to fund the project. A friend told him about Adobe’s Creative Residency program, so he applied and was one of four people selected to have a passion project fully funded in 2016. Over the course of his year-long residency, he created 22 Light Capsules around the world, from Los Angeles to Detroit to London.
It takes a couple of days to create each Light Capsule. He begins in the archives researching old photographs to find out what the signs looked like initially. It’s not an easy task since people didn’t take many photos of signs—back then, these were just run-of-the-mill advertisements. So he relies on streetscapes for windows into the past. He then takes photographs of the signs in their current state and uploads them to his computer. He uses several programs—Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and MadMapper—to create his final animated product and uses projection mapping to display his recreations on the sides of buildings.
Winnipeg’s preservation of the ghost signs isn’t common; in most cities and towns, they’re increasingly in danger, being painted over or lost entirely to demolition.
“By not embracing these as an aesthetic of the city, you lose a lot of the feeling of the city itself and the history that is there,” Winslow says. “It’s amazing to be able to say, ‘Oh, that business used to be there and it clearly used to be there because it is painted right there on that building.’ It’s a remnant of history, and it’s a shame to see them lost.”
Some cities and towns are restoring ghost signs with fresh paint, but that can be a contentious issue. Winslow says that in the sign painting community, many people believe that for a restoration to be authentic, it must be repainted by the person who originally painted the sign, or a direct apprentice. That’s tough for a 75-year-old sign.
Color and paint choice presents another problem. Ghost signs have lasted so long because the paint contained lead. Modern paints peel, rather than slowly fading away. Many of today’s restorations are painted in bright colors, but old paints were less vibrant, and the available palette was limited.
“I just really love the aesthetic of seeing these be worn, and it’s sort of akin to an elderly person trying to cover up their wrinkles instead of being like ‘No, this is my age. This is natural.’ So I love that aesthetic,” Winslow says.
However, Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, doesn’t take sides on the restoration debate.
“It’s kind of a subjective call, like when you restore an old house; are you going to restore it back to not having electric lights and have gas lights and not have a bathroom, not have indoor plumbing like some of the early Victorian houses?” Swormstedt says. “How purist do you want to get?”
Back in Winnipeg—below the brightly restored Milady Chocolates sign—people continued to line the street looking up at Winslow’s non-invasive preservation project. Clusters of people discussed what they saw; some took photos. It’s likely that this is the largest crowd ever gathered in this one spot to contemplate the sign on the wall. A time warp opened, for one night only.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Tod Swormstedt’s name.