One of Melbourne’s ‘urban archaeologists’, Stefan Schutt, tells how he came to be fascinated with the faded lettering and advertising that still adorns many of the older walls of his city.
I’ve always been into collecting ephemera and urban exploring, especially in industrial locales.
In February 2012 I noticed a piece of paper flapping in the bushes outside my workplace in an old industrial area of Melbourne. I worked then in a new concrete and glass building, built on the spot where a row of workers’ cottages used to be, and surrounded by factories and warehouses that were in the process of being knocked down to make way for a new railway line.
The piece of paper was a blank sign-writing invoice from the 1940s, with a beautiful letterhead. I looked and saw other pieces of paper: job sheets, quotations, sketches. All from the same era, and the same sign-writing company. As I picked them up I saw they were blowing in from the fenced-off end of the street, where demolition was underway, next to the soon-to-be expanded railway line.
The gate was unlocked so I went in and collected more pieces of paper until the site manager drove in, saw me and told me to leave. I waited until he left, then went back (the gate was still unlocked). In the bushes on the pavement next to the railway line, I found a tattered, bound book labelled ‘Incoming Correspondence’ that contained letters, telegrams, statements and other documents.
The book contains the 1947 and 1948 correspondence of a company called Australasian Radio Productions, producers of radio serials during the ‘golden era’ of radio in Australia (before the advent of television, I found out later, Melbourne was a centre of radio production). The co-owner and director of ARP was Morris West. West would later become Australia’s most internationally successful author with 70 million book sold. The book contains a wealth of material including correspondence with writers about serial plots, negotiations with radio stations and the Australian Performing Rights Association, memos to other ARP staff and royalty statements from West’s first book, Moon in my Pocket.
Now excited, I noticed that these scattered papers seemed to originate from the fenced-off demolition site next to the street, which until recently had been a Vietnamese-owned mechanic business that I passed every morning after parking my car. So after work, and after the blokes in hard hats had left, I went back, jumped over the fence and found a large pile of damp, musty papers unceremoniously dumped on the concrete and exposed to the elements:
For the next two hours I rummaged through the pile. It mainly contained the records of the Lewis and Skinner sign-writing company back to the 1920s, but also contained other ARP records, in various states of decay.
By the time I sneaked out in the dusk (and was seen leaving by the security guard on patrol) I’d found the outgoing ARP correspondence book, invoices and a pile of other loose correspondence that spanned from 1946 until 1954, when, I’ve found out, West sold the company. I also found a wealth of the Lewis & Skinner stuff, but didn’t realise how many until later (over 10,000 documents that are now scanned and uploaded to the website)
I went back another night and picked up more stuff – and by the next week the rest of it (most of the pile) had been carted off to landfill.
Since then, I have been actively trying to match the signs with the jobs. I have only found one so far that matches and is still around. It was uncovered during the demolition and construction works of a large wall sign in Surrey Hills (Melbourne East). It included a sign for Robur Tea and another for Medallion Foods. That sign has been covered up again now that the new building has gone up.
Melbourne is ghost sign central really, in terms of Australian cities. My theory is that Melbourne has always been a boom-bust city: rapid expansion of the city, followed by decades of benign neglect (unlike say Sydney, where everything is always being knocked down, rebuilt, reinvented). Plus traditionally a large working class manufacturing base…meaning more poorer suburbs with less repainting etc. Some regional centres are good too I’ve heard, for example Launceston, Tasmania and Portland, New South Wales.
I asked Stefan whether Melbourne’s street art subculture poses any threat to the city’s ‘ghost signs’.
It depends on the street artists I guess. You get all types. Generally, there has been respect but not always, especially with taggers.
In London and other cities, there are guided tours in which people can admire ‘ghost signs’ around the city. Does Melbourne have anything similar?
What’s Stefan’s take on groups – such as the Letterheads – refurbishing ghost signs to their former glory?
I recall that the Letterheads – a group like the Walldogs – here have [repainted a few ghost signs], such as a large ‘Indian Root Pills’ sign on a shed in the countryside, in Raworth, New South Wales. Here in Seddon, Melbourne, someone badly repainted an ETA peanut butter sign after it was tagged. The sign featured in a Channel Ten TV report the other night.
My take? I think they’re meant to be ephemeral and layered – that’s part of their appeal. They were advertising, and never designed to be around forever. I say: let them be submerged under tags or peel away naturally, and record them with photos. I kind of think the same thing about street art – Banksys and the like. But nothing against the Letterheads or their ilk’s good work. In the US, some civic-minded folks have started campaigns to repaint their local signs. It kind-of misses the point to me. For ghost sign luminaries like Frank Jump in the US, these signs are symbols of survival against the odds. Their survival has an accidental quality about it. I like that, the idea of the trace.
Recently, Stefan held an exhibition an exhibition of the Lewis and Skinner documents, at Lady Moustache Cafe, in Melbourne. After being pulled from a pile of rubbish, these documents were now framed behind glass, and being admired by Melbourne’s artistic set.
It’s going this week, and going very well – better than expected. So many people have heard about it (there was an article in the paper) and have come from country places two hours’ drive away to see it. It’s in a cafe so people can have a drink and meal afterwards and chat. I’ve met so many cool people over the last three days – two days to go. Many signwriters have turned up, local history buffs, art directors, locals interested in their area, the writer of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries…quite a mix. And we’ve got a massive Lewis & Skinner mural being painted on the side wall too.
See the blog for latest news on the exhibition and painting of the signwriting company sign on the wall.
A few photos from the exhibition:
Are there any other events coming up?
I’m hoping to have more events coming soon, including an online video of the Lewis & Skinner logo being painted on the cafe wall this week.
Take a look at Stefan’s prolific blog, Finding the Radio Book