Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Black plastic sign boards were once a common sight across London, and last summer I featured a decrepit specimen advertising electrical wares by the seaside. Perhaps it had retired from a life of crime in the metropolis.
In typographic terms, these signs are inherently sinister. The design draws on the white-on-black aesthetics of the chalkboard, but with none of the latter's grace. It combines a brutal typeface with a technology that, while initially promising freedom of choice, in fact constrains any graphic invention. Tiny holes in the surface of the board clamp onto plastic letter-shafts, insisting on perfect rectilinear presentation, while no other design elements need be followed. The board is the epitome of the upright and the ugly, as self-righteous and unimaginative as the Cockney cafe proprietor.
Sign boards are a quirk of display technology, an evolutionary anomaly like the vicious star-nosed mole of the Pacific North West, a creature neither of the land nor of the sea, with its alien and disturbing snout. These strange inventions have preserved their form unchanged while new and flashier ways of marketing – LED strips, florescent stars, digital displays – passed them by.
Like its more majestic relative, the cinema hoarding, the sign board has always suffered from a paucity of alphabetic material. The board’s owner must endure the fact that, even from the outset, there are never enough letters provided. And so words are misspelt to begin with, dollars used to represent pounds, letters to represent numbers – and vice versa. Then comes the inevitable decline in standards, first a spattering of chip fat, and then growing chaos as letters go missing in action, sucked up the hoover along with baked beans, beard trimmings or dead mice; falling from the board and down the back of a leatherette sofa as the plastic pegs bend and break.
In this deadpan version, Gangland Caff, the artist Andrew Lee encapsulates the poignant role of the sign board as both a welcome and a warning. Lee's 'Slap-Up Menu' offers a selection of unpalatable snacks that combine Cockney rhyming slang with the great greasy spoon tradition. Make mine a knuckle sandwich and a ginger beer.
Gangland Caff / menu board / 46x62cms / 2007