Ghost Signs of Willy Street

A building was recently raised during demolition work being done in conjunction with the Overture on the 100 block of State Street. Discovered behind a wall that came down was an old advertisement. At the corner of State, East Dayton and Fairchild streets, high above the intersection, a sign for “UNIVERSAL” …something was revealed – visible for the first time since the 1920s.

Photo taken by Linda Falkenstein appeared in the online version of the Isthmus. http://isthmus.com/arts/the-ghost-signs-of-madison/
Photo taken by Linda Falkenstein appeared in the online version of the Isthmus. http://isthmus.com/arts/the-ghost-signs-of-Madison/

The funny thing is, no one is 100% sure as to whom the advertisement belonged. The fact that we are not sure what the billboard painted on that wall was promoting forces us to reevaluate other ghost signs around town.

Willy Street’s ghost signs are well known but more scrutiny of these murals of the turn of the last century have been calling into question conventional wisdom about what was being promoted. More shocking is what has been discovered in and under these wallmurals of yesteryear.

Otto Greenwald, who lived in the Johnson Street area and would have been 116 years old in May of this year, was a walldog as a young man in his late teens. A walldog is what these advertising artists were called in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Mr. Greenwald got himself into a bit of trouble in 1968. Right about the time that corporate subliminal messaging in advertising was coming to light, he began telling the press that the murals that they had painted back in the early part of the last century contained subliminal messages in them, as well.

Woven right into the design of the mural, contended Greenwald, “We were painting pictures of body parts, secret messages and naked women.” When asked where these murals were he said that most of them had been torn down, a fact that wasn’t helping his case.

And then Greenwald mention that there was a mural that had been preserved. He said that it was on the wall of a building at State, E Dayton and Fairchild Streets – on the wall of a building conveniently covered by another building constructed close enough to hide the painted billboard. He wasn’t taken seriously and quietly passed away later that year.

Well, after nearly 100 years of being covered, that mural has just become visible again. The discovery has created some excitement and some conjecture but I can tell you one thing that no one is talking about and that is Otto Greenwald and his story of subliminal messages. Go ahead check the media coverage of the discovery – no one is talking about it.

Well, we at Spoofing Willy Street are talking about it. There are several of these ghost signs in the Willy Street area and we have discovered what we believe to be subliminal messaging in and under each of them.  We intend to blow the lid off this story, so watch for posts in the very near future about the well known ghost signs of Willy Street.

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