Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It's the pleasure principle oh oh ohh

I don't know about you, but when I am working on rearranging my thought pattern avoiding something I stare out a window. Yep I was the kid staring out the window in school daydreaming about who knows what.

After my last few weeks I have been staring out a lot of windows.  Sadly, when this happens all thoughts work back to one thought - consumerism.  I could blame it on all the buzz around the oil spill, the truth behind a $4 t-shirt, and the lasting effects this will have on everything. The truth is I have been thinking about it since the 80s, when everyone had to have Guess jeans.

What made everyone want this products? How did these companies make me want them? Could I create something that would make everyone want one? Why did I feel like I had to have them? Now granted I really never felt like I had to had them, I have always valued quality over name brand, but having that upside-down triangle with red outline (and not the green cause I am not a boy) made me feel a little more special.

I think I had one pair and sadly I think it was the kids version (also a different color label) not nearly as cool as buying "grown up sizes".  But why did I want them? Was it really the Janet Jackson "Pleasure Principle" video or  Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer ads. I mean really who didn't want to dance like Janet in that video even if you weren't wearing Guess jeans, and hello I still want to look like Claudia Schiffer or Naomi Campbell have you seen them lately!

In the end it all comes down to advertisements. The way something is advertised teaches you a lot about 1) the year/time period of the ad 2) the main audience 3) the important key words of the time 4) the core/ sometimes popular products of the area. 5) the importance of craftsmanship and style and process.

Now I love ads all of them, (I have been known to break out in a jingle) but some of my favorite are the ones from years past.  Not just the old print ones, or the ones on tins, or original TV ads, but the ones that are known as Ghost signs. You can find them normally on old historic buildings, the hieroglyphics of a bygone and sometimes forgotten era.

At my new apartment both of my views overlook some great historic buildings. (Not the ones above I am lazy and have not found the good camera)  These buildings aren't by the laymen eye memorable.  They are what I will classify as traditional urban mix-use brick buildings with a classic storefront.  I could move further, but I will spare you the spiral of talking about storefronts cause really I could go on. (Maybe I will torture you when I find my camera)

So one day while staring at the old beer ad across the street getting really thirsty thinking about oil spill/ consumerism ,  I started thinking about how today preservationist spend a lot of energy protecting these signs. They (the National Parks Service) have even given us tools on how to properly protect them for years to come.(BTW for those renovating historic homes the NPS has a ton of briefs that will help you with every aspect of your renovation, i.e. how to remove plaster to expose brick and how to find funding to pay for it)

Just five years ago this was not the norm, even the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission did not protect these signs.  Fast forward just two years and a town in Colorado was doing a study on their ghost signs, three more years and another town is talking about how to restore an historic sign during restoration for a building and debating rather they could get preservation funding to help them.(and yes it is possible).

The skinny on these signs is that the ones that we can still see fading off into glory are mainly from 1890s to 1960s. But did you know that merchants of Pompeii before the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius that covered the city in thick volcanic ash had these same signs!(well not the same signs but hand-painted signs)

The funny thing about these ghost signs is the not the debate that has lasted for 1 billion years a few years on if we should preserve them, is that for 100 years we have argued about if we should even have signs. In 1911(St. Louis Gunning Advertising Company v. City of St. Louis) we argued that signs (and billboards) endangered public health and safety. Then in 1954 after a very famous case for preservationist (Berman v. Parker) communities enacted a sign control to reduce "urban blight".

So when you run across a faded sign you are looking at more then an advertisement of days gone by, a trail of our buying history the rise of consumerism, you are seeing pieces of two court cases and how those court cases helped shape many things (preservation laws, health concern, etc).  Lastly what you are seeing is the left over pieces of a dying art of the hand-painted advertisements because of the quickness and cheapness of replacements.  After all there is a connection between advertising and art and how we remember a time. How will we remember this one when art and form and care of creating is losing out to a "I need it now and I need it cheap" consumer. When did quantity beat quality.

So I leave you with this film that examines the dying art of hand-painted advertisements, or ghost signs, because I need to stop staring out windows for a little bit and unpack my new space.

UP THERE from The Ritual Project on Vimeo.

Until next time,


  1. I personally love the new Guinness "fortune favors the bold" ads. They're very clever and often very funny.
    You should check them out.

  2. I wish I was smart enough to make a Rhythm Nation 1814 allusion but I'm not...

    Love these 'ghost signs'!