The disappearance of signs is inevitable, but the appearance of new ones to take their place is often less certain. Shops in Berlin are forever closing – some merely relocating, others going out of business altogether – and when the shop goes, the sign usually goes with it. But when you take down a sign that’s been sitting on the side of building for several decades, you soon discover that the places where the letters once stood are no longer quite the same as the surrounding surface.
It may be that an accumulation of black city-dirt has gathered beneath the old letters, or it could be that the paint around them has faded. Whatever the case, the sign may be long gone, but its residual shape and message remains imprinted on the building; as we walk past an empty shop-front, we can tell that it was until recently home to an Apotheke or a Dry-Cleaner. In some cases there is only enough to make out the faint trace of a word, but often the sign-burn gives us a very clear idea of what the sign itself must once have looked like.
The residue left by signs never lasts for very long: the building is sandblasted, restuccoed, or repainted until all that’s left is a conspicuous blank space. The phenomenon of sign-burn thus captures not only the memory of a sign that once existed, but also a very precise moment of transition in the life of our city. Most of the signs suggested in the following images were removed only within the past six months. Six months from now, even the traces will have disappeared.
Yet despite their necessary impermanence, these phantom signs* are a familiar sight throughout Berlin … and for urban typography enthusiasts, finding them on our journeys through the city comes with a mixture of fascination and sadness. They provide us with a soot-clouded window onto an unrecoverable past, while serving as a reminder of urbanism’s greatest truth: no city stands still for very long.
* We have used the term ‘phantom signs’ primarily to differentiate them from the phenomenon of ‘ghost signs,’ which have been documented extensively at the excellent Ghost Signs website. The latter, which are painted remnants from the distant past, are fundamentally different in so far as they represent the original artefact, while the examples of sign-burn collected here are little more than traces of an artefact which no longer exists. There are, of course, numerous painted ‘ghost signs’ in Berlin and they will almost certainly form the subject of their own blog post in the months to come.
Coda: Disappearance in Action
Only three days after this post was published, we found ourselves on a walk through Alt-Tegel, one of the city’s northern localities. In November of last year we had visited the area on one or two occasions to document some of the neighbourhood’s typographic gems; the first sign we came across was also perhaps the most delightful. It belonged to a shop called Woll-Christl.
There was nothing not to love about their sign. It had neon, it had a cursive section … even the small heart dotting the eye was oddly charming.
Perhaps the 30% sign in the window should have set the alarm bells ringing. Or perhaps, given the obvious vintage of the shop, its days were already numbered. Whatever the case, when we walked past the other day, this was all that remained:
The shop had been emptied, but it was not vacant. A stack of new drywall sheets on the floor suggested that some kind of transformation was already underway. On our next visit to Tegel, there will undoubtedly be a new shop where Woll-Christl once stood … it will remain only to wonder what happened to those wonderful neon letters.
Change, as we mentioned above, is an inevitable and essential part of urban life; the process of documenting the typographic culture in an ever-changing city cannot be undertaken without the realisation that time is forever working against us.
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