The San Francisco Ghost Sign Mapping Project is a social practice and historical research project dedicated to mapping development trends via the lens of the city’s historic handpainted advertising signs.

Started in 2011 by artist Kasey Smith, the project revolves around a map that includes the location, history, and status of these “ghost signs”. To date, 403 signs have been added to the map, mainly in the areas east of Sutro Tower.

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The heyday of San Francisco’s handpainted signage was from the 1906 earthquake to the mid-1950’s when the cost of large format printing caught up with the cost of sign painting. While some companies and businesses continue to paint their signs, it’s generally for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons. Their function is purely anachronistic and decorative, where once it was driven by economic necessity.

The older style of sign is a fixed point in the historio-geography of San Francisco and the map is a living document updated as the constellation of those points changes. After all, the city isn’t creating any more of them; it’s simply shuffling around the skyline to reveal and obscure them. By studying these points, by immersing ourselves in their locations and histories, we can use them as a lens to better understand the trends at play upon the city at large.

Once you start to see these signs, you can never unsee them. A glimpse down an alley here, a glimpse high on a wall there. They become part of how you understand urban space and how you parse your travels through it.

Welcome to the journey! It’s a fun one.