Madrid’s Enterprising Heritage Seen Through Its Signs

MADRID — The darkened sign of a shuttered restaurant, bar, or shop might not mean much to everyone, but for the Madrid-based collective Paco Graco, it represents an important part of a city’s graphic and cultural history.

In No va a quedar nada de todo esto (None of This Will Last) at CentroCentro, Paco Graco displays more than 150 signs that the group and its many community collaborators have rescued from now-closed businesses around Madrid. Spanning nearly a century, these signs — along with collections of customized napkins, plastic bags, price labels, and wrapping papers — tell the story of the Spanish capital through traces of its enterprising people, many of whom served their neighborhoods across generations. At a time of rapid globalization and change in Spain, this exhibition is a fresh and fascinating look at the city’s heritage.

The show features signs from shops and businesses both iconic and now largely forgotten. Madrid has long been a city of immigrants, attracting countless people from other parts of the country and the rest of the world. This diversity is especially reflected in food: signs for a sushi place, a Chinese restaurant, and a Muslim butcher shop commingle with those advertising more traditional Spanish fare. 

All of the signs on view are cleaned and illuminated, returning them to their former glory in CentroCentro’s wide open exhibition space. Visitors encounter them almost like they would walking through the city and its jumble of commercial prospects on each street. In one room, a sign for a youth center for sexual health and contraception hangs beside a glowing yellow butter shop banner and a neon green sign for a cafeteria. These arrangements echo the landscape of the gritty working-class neighborhoods for which Madrid is still known.

More than a celebration of or a cemetery for Madrid’s bygone signs, the show’s organizers have created a catalyst for conversations between generations of madrileños about the past, present, and future of their city. Behind each of these signs are people who worked hard to serve their communities. Most of these shops would have been located below apartments whose residents sustained these small businesses. Why is this way of life disappearing from city streets and social memory in Spain and elsewhere so quickly? As it fades, this exhibition is a tender reminder of its uniqueness.

No va a quedar nada de todo esto (None of This Will Last) continues at CentroCentro (Plaza de Cibeles, 1, Madrid, Spain) through March 10. The exhibition was organized by Paco Graco.

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