Tracey Thorne has taken her interest in the ghost signs of Birmingham to the streets of Jamaica where she is leading a fascinating project to document the island’s painted signs and those responsible for creating them. She is currently in the Caribbean for the latest phase of her research, but kindly took time out to answer some questions about her ‘Hand-Painted Jamaica’ project.

Anthony Able Record Shop © Tracey Thorne

The origins of the project were on the streets of Birmingham in England where Tracey’s fascination with the history of places led to her becoming “interested in the ephemeral nature of the streets” and to photographing the graffiti, signs and street art that she found across the city. It was the discovery of a Twinings Tea ghost sign that led to a pivotal moment.

“It was like an awakening. I began to see the streets differently and decided to try to find all of Birmingham’s ghost signs. This provided a fascinating alternative way to navigate the city, not bound by any conventions, just being guided by what’s painted on the walls.”

Twinings Tea, Birmingham © Tracey Thorne

This pursuit of the city’s ghost signs resulted in the documentation of c.180 painted signs on brick, dating from the 1850s to the 1970s. This in turn led to an interest in the craft of signwriting itself and the fascinating discovery that Victorian signwriting pioneer William Sutherland was plying his trade in the city while writing ‘The Grainer, Marbler, and Sign-Writer’s Assistant’ (1854).

“He [Sutherland] must have come to Birmingham with aspirations to make his fortune, but things didn’t seem to go his way and at one point records show he ended up in the Warwick debtors jail.”

William George Sutherland, The Sign Writer and Glass Embosser (1898), Plate 1. Photo courtesy of Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

It is surprising that Sutherland’s story is not more widely known in the city of Birmingham. Tracey’s rediscovery of his time there fits with a perception of her own work as being “in part a response to the disappearing city and what I see as a slow process that strips away the character of a place.” (The next stage for this is ‘The Fading City’, an exhibition of screenprints of historic signs, in collaboration with Bristol-based print maker Jemma Gunning, which opens 2 – 14 March at The Hive Gallery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.)

Channel 1 Recording Studio © Tracey Thorne

It was then in 2018 while Tracey was in Jamaica that another chance discovery opened up a new avenue for her work. She saw a ghost sign on the now-abandoned building that once housed the Channel One recording studio. While photographing the sign, Tracey recalls that “it immediately resonated with my work in the UK documenting signs” and in that moment the ‘Hand-Painted Jamaica’ project was born.

Micheal Robinson, sign painter © Tracey Thorne

Later in 2018 Tracey received financial support from Arts Council England “to carry out a documentary photography project to explore Jamaica’s visual culture by photographing graffiti (textual daubed lettering), signs and street art found painted in the streets across the island.” (Tracey points out that graffiti here refers to “textual lettering daubed on walls, scribblings and drawings” as opposed to the tags and pieces that the word often refers to. She notes that where ‘traditional’ graffiti pieces are found in Jamaica, they are usually done by visiting artists.)

Bug Art, sign painter © Tracey Thorne

The project is not just about documenting the signs. Tracey has been breaking new ground by identifying and collaborating with sign-painters and mural artists. This has allowed her to create a photographic record of their work, complimented by individual stories and insights into their techniques and approaches. During her first field trip she worked with 14 painters which led to an exhibition in Birmingham in April 2019.

“’Big Tings A Gwaan Down Di Street‘ was the first exhibition of its kind to explore this aspect of Jamaican visual culture and to connect people to some of Jamaica’s talented sign and mural artists. The exhibition included a number of short video clips where people could hear the painters in their own words and see some original Jamaican signs that I had collected while on the island.”

Given Tracey’s work alongside the painters I was interested in learning more about who’s who on the island. She points out that although there are lots there, most are only well-known in their local patch, rather than having an island-wide presence. However, some have gained wider popularity, including internationally.

“I would say that the three most well-known are Nurse, a sign-painter in Negril, Michael Robinson in West Kingston and a younger rising star Bug Art in Savanna La Mar. All three are self-taught which is typical in Jamaica where very few attend art school. Nurse and Michael have both been painting for more than thirty years, which is incredible when you think about the sheer volume of work across their careers, but also just how much Jamaica has changed during that time span. Bug Art trained with Nurse but as a younger sign painter his work is also influenced by contemporary graffiti and art.”

I was also interested in the tools, materials and techniques used by the painters, especially given the relative isolation from specialist suppliers that those in Europe and North America are accustomed to.

“Sign painters and street artists are largely reliant on using equipment and materials that they can purchase from hardware shops. Some told me that they sometimes get relatives to send brushes but often find it difficult doing really detailed lettering. Most painters use flat emulsion paints [latex in USA] and several use aerosols to create the vibrant signs used to advertise Dancehall parties and bars. Nurse uses this technique a lot where he paints lettering in emulsion and combines this with the use of florescent aerosols, for example on this Roots Bamboo sign.”

Roots Bamboo sign by Nurse © Tracey Thorne

Tracey’s work on ‘Hand-Painted Jamaica’ is far from over and she has much more to come in the future. This includes her current field trip, also Arts Council England funded, which aims “to cover more of the island to gain a better understand of the differences in distribution of graffiti and art practices across it.” She is also observing changes over time, and the “creeping decline” of painted signs as a medium to advertise in the face of competition from print shops.

“The Dancehall sign, that small square hand-painted event notice that you once saw nailed to thousands of lamp-posts across the Island, is starting to disappear. Its more common now to see a lamp-post full of printed Dancehall signs that mimic the hand-painted culture but don’t quite cut it up close. I’ve now started collecting the hand-painted signs and the most recent addition is one for a ‘Soca meets Dancehall’ party. I found it beside the road on my way to meet Rev Tishion in the parish of St Thomas, and it turned out that he painted it!”

Rev Tishion with his painted Dancehall sign © Tracey Thorne

In addition to meeting more sign painters and artists, Tracey is now honing in on particular categories of painted signs. These include those advertising Dancehall events on walls (as opposed to sign boards) which are only found in particular parishes on the island. In addition, and also in decline in the face of printed media, is hand-painted barber shop art. Tracey is “especially keen to seek out those Barber shops that still have painted hairstyles on the exterior.”

Barber Shop sign © Tracey Thorne

Tracey’s journey is both fascinating, and ongoing, and I’m excited to share her progress as she moves into the next phase of the ‘Hand-Painted Jamaica’ initiative. You can find out more on her blog, where you can also buy a copy of her zine (only £5!) and see more of the sign painter videos. She regularly posts to her Instagram (@traceyathorne) using the hashtag #handpaintedjamaica and I’m sure she’d welcome any additional input to the project from readers of this site that have Jamaican connections.

Gapa, sign painter © Tracey Thorne