Saturday, April 13, 2013

ghost signs galore: another meander through Melbourne's north

Today I saddled up the bike and took another meandering tour through the northern suburbs, the former heart of Melbourne manufacturing, on a different route to ones I'd taken previously. As usual the city didn't disappoint. No matter how long I live here or do these urban expeditions, Melbourne still manages to surprise, delight or confound.

More often than not this happens in subtle or hidden ways - imaginatively converted warehouses tucked away in nondescript lanes, long alleys of red Victorian brick stumbled upon by accident, derelict sites next to new developments, unexpected histories. One example:  an unusual but old wooden building encountered today in Collingwood's back streets, apparently one of a few imported from Singapore during the gold rush of the 1850s. This city's streets and lanes often feels like one giant palimsest: a layering of lives and their by-products, current, past, and emerging.

Today a colleague sent me a quote by Walter Benjamin that sums this up so very well:

Streets are the dwelling place of the collective. The collective is an eternally unquiet, eternally agitated being that -- in the space between the building fronts -- experiences, learns, understands, and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls. For this collective, glossy enamelled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois….

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project ([1927-40] 2002: 423)

And from here, an easy segueway to ghost signs. Today I found plenty. To start with, Preston,  Thornbury and upper Northcote:

Converted factory in the back streets of Preston

Next few are from Preston/Thornbury, in a former industrial pocket
being colonised by droves of multi-storey apartment developments. You can see the cranes in a couple of these pics.

An unexpected present behind High Street

Converted dairy across the train tracks. Oh for a proper zoom.

Not a ghost sign, but an attractively kooky bit of signwriting.

Very ghostly, this one (see next pic for a closer look)

The now-genteel southern city end: Westgarth and Clifton Hill:

Renovated, but Bushells window left intact

hard to see in real life, and even harder here.

An awesome discovery of an old Robur Tea sign hiding under the milk bar awning.

Fabulous gradual reveal of some splendid sign writing under the render -
on the wall of an Alexandra Parade antique shop (also next three pics)
See the pic of the country church?

In an alley around the corner from the antique shop, on what is now a home
- sign writing meets graffiti (and next pic)

And also in Clifton Hill: some more of the brilliant and mysterious photos pasted up on local walls I'd seen previously in other parts of the suburb, inspiring me to think of new project ideas:

And now down to Collingwood, former industrial/manufacturing powerhouse and rough place to live - but now gentrifying to the hilt:

This little ex-milk bar looks humble, but it's famous - a star of Stephen Banham's book Characters. The gradually rusting Tarax bottles have been snapped many times.

Bushells Tea sign on the side wall. This is particularly partner Julia also snapped this milk bar around 15 years ago, and remembers this wall as being just cream. Recently sign writer Tony Mead told me that, due to the introduction of less hardy acrylic paints, older signs sometimes reveal themselves over time as the paint covering them deteriorates. Voila!

Gentrification in progress

Who indeed?

Not a ghost sign, but a beautiful little Collingwood factory

Ornate old grocery signage, but hard to see



 Lastly, a couple in Fitzroy on the way back:

Deliberate uncovering on Brunswick Street

have posted this Gertrude Street one before, a long time ago - but heck, I liked it today.


  1. You have been busy! Some great finds there, most of which are new to me.

    Thought I'd mention the fantastic sign I found yesterday on Barkley Street in St Kilda. The building has old signs on all sides, but the best is an ad for Swallow and Arielle's biscuits and cakes.

    I've been posting LOADS of old photos lately, including a bunch I took while walking all the way from Maribyrnong to the CBD.

    I recognised the name Walter Benjamin - although I hadn't heard of that very apt quote. I mentioned him in a post once about psychogeography. Is that quote from The Arcades Project?

    You might also be interested in this book called Sign Painters.

    1. Hi Jane. Thanks for your message. Will check out the Barkly St sign - Swallow and Ariell were one of Lewis & Skinner's biggest clients. And yep, the Benjamin quote is from the Arcades Project. I've also referred to his psychogeography work in my PhD (in my case, life mapping). Thanks too for the Sign Painters details - they're about to finish a doco to add to the book.