Ghosts Signs in the Exchange: A Glimpse Into the Past with Matt Cohen

Matt Cohen illuminates the fading ads that give us a glimpse into Winnipeg’s past.

It’s hard to miss the collection of painted, fading ads on the sides of heritage buildings in the Exchange District. These are ghost signs, and they offer us a window into the past, representing a moment in time for old businesses.  Ghost signs were the primary form of advertising between the 1890s through the 1960s, before billboards and vinyls took their place.

Matt Cohen, an advertising veteran and urban archaeologist, has been documenting Winnipeg’s ghost signs over the last ten years.

Matt originally began researching ghost signs in the Exchange as a passion project that he thought might take a few months. Once he got started, he realized the scope and volume of the venture, and a few months turned into two years and over 150 ghost signs.  Fast forward ten years, and Matt continues to bring ghost signs to life through several mediums.  Alongside documentation and research, he hosts walking tours, creates installations, and has even hosted an intriguing TED Talk.

So why ghost signs?

“It’s such a character-defining aspect of the Exchange and a really interesting aspect of our history that is often overlooked,” says Matt.

The Porter Ghost Sign Installation

He aims to bring attention to the businesses and brands formed in Winnipeg, whose historic signs people may walk past every day and not notice.  Ghost signs offer us a glimpse into the business’s names, and Matt’s work dives deeper. He tells the stories of the people working in these buildings, what the businesses sold, and why they started.

“For me, it’s a really interesting intersection between art, commerce, and advertising.”

Ghost signs are protected by heritage status in the Exchange District, meaning they can’t be painted over, altered, or removed. Yet still, they are constantly changing as they are impacted by time and the elements.  These signs aren’t offered such protections in other areas of the city.

Craig Winslow and Matt Cohen at the Porter-Milady Installation

Matt believes these signs are temporal – a piece of art that marks a point in time yet continues to evolve. Part of his work is finding other ways to preserve the legacy of ghost signs, like writing corporate histories or collecting objects from the businesses the signs represent.

It was this mission that brought him to his installation work. In 2017, Matt started working with Craig Winslow, an experiential designer, bringing ghost signs back to life during an Adobe Creative Residency. Using light as a medium, Craig found a way to highlight the signs using non-invasive heritage preservation.

Their first collaboration illuminated five ghost signs in the Exchange with light capsule installations for one night.

Their work became the subject of the documentary ‘Writing on the Wall.’ In 2022, they installed the first permanent ghost sign installation with the Stobart Sign at the corner of King and Bannatyne. Matt and Craig’s newest project is the Porter-Milady ghost sign in partnership with Take Pride Winnipeg, the second permanent install in Winnipeg and the third in the world! Debuted during Nuit Blanche, this sign is the largest in scope and will run until 2030.

Others are also helping to highlight and preserve the history of ghost signs. The Travelling Sign Painters maintain the art of hand-painted advertisements in their work throughout the city. You can check out their mural on the Birt Saddlery building to see another example of celebrating ghost signs.

Birt Saddlery Ghost Sign, Mural by the Travelling Sign Painters

Ghost signs are indeed universally likable. “Everyone kind of likes these signs in different ways – some people like the history aspect, some people like the typography and the design, other people like the architecture.”

People are passionate about remembering and preserving the history of these signs, and Matt often has people reach out to provide more history or context to his work.  Matt even got in touch with the original painter of the Milady Chocolates advertisement through his grandson, who saw Matt’s first installation. The Milady sign was the first and only advertisement he painted at 17 years old before he went on to teach graphic design! It’s stories like these that make history come to life.

Matt loves our city, history, and advertising and will continue his work celebrating and preserving ghost signs into the future. 

You can check out the new Porter-Milady installation at 165 McDermot Ave in the Exchange.

Stay up-to-date with Matt’s work:

Check out Matt’s collection of ghost signs on Instagram: @fadingads
Learn more about ghost signs and Matt’s projects: 
Listen to Matt’s TED Talk: 
Watch the Writing on the Wall documentary: