On the Disfigurement of Signs

This text was first published in the journal of the MA in Industrial Design (MAID) at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, University of the Arts, London in 2006.

No Parking sign with stickers and graffitti

“He said: ‘Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.’”

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

On the street I see that abstraction is creeping back. In amongst all the posted information (street names, stickers, tags, insults) there are points at which no data is visible. Instead, some of the signs or, maybe more accurately, plaques, are devoid of legible text or useful imagery; their messages obliterated/decayed/defaced to the point of illegibility.

I first noticed this on a sign I had been passing for years. It was bolted onto a railing, measured about 600mm x 450mm and had once carried the phrase ‘NO PARKING’ in white letters against a blue background, but years of being stickered had meant that the painted surface had faded at different rates as the stickers themselves deteriorated. Superimposed on this surface there was the inevitable intervention of graffiti but at small scale so that no one mark dominated.

Now the sign can barely be read (and anyway, its original message has been made redundant by the constant reinvention of traffic controls on the street) and the whole is an amalgam of random scratches and overlaid pattern. There are square patches where the original bold lettering is visible but elsewhere the blue has faded to dirty grey.

Sign on fence with Maori sticker

Elsewhere I found other examples. On the perimeter fence of the tarmac football pitch is a series of boards, hung at about eye-level. These may have once carried some prohibition but any single clear message has long disappeared. In some transitional phase they have been used to convey immediate messages. Paper notes relating to arrangements for use of the pitch are present in the vestigial form of fragments trapped under rusting staples.

Again, the size of the signs themselves (and their position attached to wire fencing) has prevented coherent tags from taking over and despite the presence of some legible text the painted marks and indelible pen scrawls have the look of random disfigurement.

Two of the five signs are sprayed with red, stencilled images of the Easter Island heads - Maoi – as if an attempt has been made to reclaim the signs from abstraction. But the context works against them: the overwritten words ‘wanker’ and ‘rosemary boys 04’ undermine the spray-can/antique image.

Another sign, in the adjacent park, has suffered a more violent alteration. This one has been struck repeatedly in the centre, causing its edges to curve outwards. This sculptural transformation has completed the work done by sprayed tags that are out of scale with the sign. The substrate of previous graffiti has proved to be unstable and subsequent paint layers have adhered only in sections. A distorted white border is still visible as if to remind the viewer of the presence of a conceptual frame.

Sign, bent and defaced

This process is the reverse of archaeology. Instead of a slow and methodical unearthing of the hidden with messages from the past becoming uncovered, the waste carefully put aside for analysis, these former signs are being organically effaced, their meanings being replaced by the nearly useless. And unlike the archaeological excavation there is nothing left here but the artefact itself – its detritus disintegrated or spread to the winds.

These plaques have become like abstract interventions in a diffuse city-wide gallery, removed from the realm of utility into an accidental world of display.