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Ghost-Sign Graffiti: An "Old Walldog" Learns New Tricks

Damm's Bakery vandalized with graffitiFrom the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, sign painters who painted advertising on the side of buildings were sometimes pejoratively referred to as "Walldogs" - a moniker which some of us have proudly taken up today. But the work of a sign artist who loves this historic signage doesn’t always involve laying down paint; sometimes it requires paint removal.

Such was the case this spring when Karen McWilliams from the Fort Collins Historic Landmark District contacted me about the Damm's Bakery sign, one of the ghost signs in Old Town Fort Collins which had been vandalized. I’ve done my share of historic restoration work, but this was the first time I was faced with needing to remove graffiti from an old brick sign. (Ghost signs are old hand-painted advertising on buildings which have faded with time, evoking nostalgia for a specific period in our shared history.)Reference photo which I took in 2007

I had taken a photograph of this sign back in April of 2007, which gave me a good reference to know what was underneath the recent defacement and the image I would be challenged to achieve.

Another building, which had been hit with graffiti on the same night, was across the same roof from the sign I was restoring. The building owners addressed this on their own by power-washing the brick. If you click on the image below, you can see why that method is completely unacceptable for a ghost sign restoration as it quickly gouged and disintegrated the old, soft brick & mortar.

Unsatisfactory graffiti removal.

Sound Advice

I sought advice from other respected sign painters and received a mixed bag of generous recommendations and formulas. In the end, two sources proved to be most beneficial: 

  • The first was a Preservation Brief published by the National Park Service dealing with graffiti removal from historic masonry. This was an invaluable resource. However, one thing the brief failed to address was the element of not only historic masonry, but additionally, how to preserve a ghost sign underneath.
  • The second was advice received via email from Deborah Uhl, who has credentialed education and significant experience in this area. At the time we communicated she was on her way to Park City, Idaho to remove graffiti which, ironically, was sprayed over the top of world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy. (i.e. The city of Park City has been preserving his graffiti as a work of art but someone else came along and defaced his “art” with their own graffiti.)

I also spoke with Pete Farquhar, a seasoned mason who has regularly done restoration work for years, and he passed on to me important information about the properties of the brick & mortar on this building- properties of which I needed to be aware in order to sensitively accomplish the needed restoration.

Armed with my knowledge, I set about testing small areas, starting first with the most gentle solvents and working up to the more aggressive ones. Eventually, I found that what worked best was Acetone as well as a graffiti removal product made by Goof-Off which contains acetone.

The process was slow and tedious but it was gratifying to see the vandalism slowly disappear and the historic sign emerge beneath. Treating small sections at a time with the solvent, working the material with nylon brushes, and rinsing/blotting each area was key – a process which had to be repeated until each area was returned to its pre-graffiti condition.

One of the difficulties I encountered was that a certain amount of graffiti paint which dissolved during the removal process was unavoidably absorbed into the raw brick surface. I made the choice to discriminately remove some of this staining with a wire brush. Obviously, that meant removing some of the surface of the brick, but it was a necessary trade-off since the goal was to restore the ghost sign, as nearly as possible, to its pre-graffiti condition.

Restored Damm's Bakery ghost sign

So, this “old dog” has added a new item to his bag of tricks. The result, though not a pristine recovery, was a success in removing the unsightly offence from this piece of history and returning it to a state which can be publicly appreciated and enjoyed. These ghost signs, with their unvarnished, weathered properties, imbue downtown Fort Collins with its rich character & historic sensibility.

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