Ghost Signs and Painted Brick Walls

Research and photographs by Tom Dobrowolsky

ghost sign in Pioneer Square, Seattle


My interest in ghost signs began in the autumn of 2003 when I had been assigned to photograph unique and character-defining features of the Pioneer Square neighborhood. As I ran across my first ghost sign, a well-preserved and colorful specimen, my curiosity was piqued. Subsequent photographic jaunts to the District involved finding more signs and the best angles and the best light in which to photograph them. Eventually, during the winter of 2004, I parlayed this interest into another study of communication and public space. Specifically, I focused on various examples of public writing -- graffiti, regulatory marks, and commercial signage -- and how an observer could essentially treat such writing and thus the city itself as a collection of texts which revealed much about the city in question. In the course of writing that study, I become interested in narrowing my previous research and focusing on the ghost signs specifically. This project is a result of that interest.

It is part of my continuing research interest in reading the built environment, in the landscape as text, and in public space as a communications medium. As my research interests are tied to geography -- the relationship of people, information, and space -- I wanted to ground my academic enquiry in a tangible, physical location in order draw upon its examples. Thus, the photographic archives consist of images from Pioneer Square, other Seattle neighborhoods, and other cities altogether. This interest stems from the increasingly disembodied nature of information and euphoria surrounding virtual environments. I have an abiding interest in securing the role of a physical sense of place -- the tangible materiality of physical environments coupled with their invested social contexts -- in discussions of human information behavior and contemporary communication.

-- Tom Dobrowolsky, June 2004.


"Painted Walls"

A presentation given April 8, 2005 at the (dis)junctions 2005: theory reloaded conference, University of California at Riverside.


Painted walls were a popular form of advertising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They evolved concurently with other forms of outdoor advertising -- billboards and poster sheets -- and became more organized and standardized within the industry at this time. As their name suggests, painted walls differed from other forms of outdoor ads in that they were painted directly on the building facades and walls, usually on brick or wood. This paper focuses on the history of painted wall ads in the U.S. within the broader context of the history, and forms, of the outdoor advertising medium. Additionally, it discusses the sign painters, known as wall dogs, as genuine artists who created these pieces of advertising art. Finally, this paper discusses the significance that these defunct ads, now known as ghost signs, possess in the cultural history of the built environment. As palimpsests, then, in both literal and figurative senses, these primary documents reveal a wealth of evidence of human activities in the urban landscape. Although this discussion is framed within the geographic context of Seattle's Pioneer Square Historic District, its conlusions are meant to be generalized to other communities.

"Reading the City: When walls speak, what do they say?"

A presentation given October 8, 2004 on the inauguration of the Information School Student Colloquium. Abstract is here. Presentation video available upon request (approx. running time 75 minutes).

All Materials ©2005 Rev. Tom Dobrowolsky except where otherwise noted.
agent (at)

Ghost Sign Galleries

Pioneer Square


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album


>> link to album