Here are some observations about why I like the work I do and how I find meaning in it. I am not talking of my work as a neon sculptor but my day job as someone who makes neon signs. While my perspectives are very personal, I know from talking to other neon artisans that my experience is not that different from theirs.
I came of age in the Midwest where--as everywhere--neon signs were ubiquitous, from Michigan Avenue where my father’s office was to the small sleepy suburb where we lived. When I was sixteen our family moved to Los Angeles, where I attended Hollywood High School. There was no shortage of neon in Hollywood. Shortly after arriving in LA my father took the family to Las Vegas and seeing those huge moving walls of color for the first time I was reminded of the rock ‘n roll light shows of the era. After college at U.C. Riverside, where I studied Art History and took an occasional side trip to Las Vegas, I moved to Long Beach and apprenticed to John MacLaughlin of Quality Neon. In 1975, I started Aargon Neon.
Here’s what I like about neon signs: their elegant lines in shocking colors, their garish sense of humor, the occasional howling malapropism, the way the colored light bathes the street scene or makes those crazy swirling patterns in the gravy of my chow fun when I sit under the neon window sign. Neon signs make the unknown familiar but they also tell us something about ourselves and the times we live in.
Neon signs transform and decorate buildings, and form our image of the urban night. As a maker of neon signs, I find it satisfying to be part of that process. At night through Oakland and Berkeley or in my small town of Crockett, I see a nightscape that my fellow neon sign makers and I have some part in shaping.
Neon is the perfect material for making lighted signs. As its bright colored line penetrates the night, neon finds its best application in neon signs depicting line drawings of funky images or as text or as decorative outlines for buildings.
Many of the signs I make are used in motion pictures or in sets for still advertising photography. For the motion picture industry, neon signs are cheap. When you want a tuna cannery (or a roadhouse) you don’t need to build one or even find one as a location, you can just find an old warehouse and put up a sign that says “Tuna Cannery.”
In still and motion picture advertising photography neon signs signify the dangerous, the wild, the suspect, the urban “Brand X” in contrast to the safe, the corporate brand, the suburban mall look of individual internally illuminated channel letters. Such channel letter signs were once internally illuminated with “safe and sane” plastic-covered sanitized neon but are now increasingly lit with LEDs (light emitting diodes.) City planners sometimes acknowledge the dangerous chaotic and erotic associations with neon in their sign regulations--that is when they are not mandating its use.
But what does all this have to do with art? Actually quite a bit.
From the 19th century beginnings of gas discharge tubing known as Geissler tubes, “neon-like ” tubes have been used to depict images and text.
As early as 1923 Sony Deluaney was applying paint on neon tubes to make art signs. In the 1960’s the Pop artists embraced commercial design and brought reprocessed advertising art into our homes as well as our art museums. This art movement produced the culture shift from the days of Peter Blake’s “God’s Own Junkyard” where neon signs were seen as part of “urban blight” to the world we now live in where grandpas have collections of neon beer signs in their garages and labels are on the outside of our clothing.
A generation beyond Pop, artists such as Lili Lakich and Bruce Nauman used sign techniques and had neon fashioned graphically by neon glass benders to mimic sign conventions. In some of my own sculpture I also use neon graphically and use the cultural associations with neon signs.
Why do I use it? For the same reason that sign makers use neon: its strong colored line, its graphic directness, its 3-D sculptural physicality. Light has long been used by artists to graphically depict the metaphysical. As Lili Lakich observes, "Neon makes the metaphor real."
Why do I like making neon signs? I enjoy both the repetition and the challenge of my glass work. Most neon sign shops do not have production items but work as I do on a “one off” basis. Even though there is a lot of repetition, with one heat of the glass tubing following another, we are always encountering something new and solving new problems for the first time.
The neon tubes found in signs are the last hand-made electric lights in common usage, and almost all neon tubes are made to the human scale. Of the hundreds of millions of neon tubes made annually, all but a very few are made by hand and all have a maximum overall dimension of no more than 8’ in length and weigh no more than two pounds. This is true even on huge Las Vegas displays.
Neon craft and design techniques are essentially transmitted orally from one generation to the next. While there are some books on how to fabricate neon tubing, almost no one learns solely this way. Most neon “tubebenders” learn from other neon artisans as apprentices, at neon schools, or by finding a mentor to assist when they need help.
While some neon artisans have a formal design background and training, most learn sign design the same way they learn the neon craft, by a combination of reading books and trade journals, and learning design techniques and approaches from other sign makers. While most glass artists would hesitate to admit that they copy other artist’s designs, sign makers readily copy designs from other sources and from existing neon signs. Almost every neon artisan I know has a story about how some “old hand” who showed them how to snag designs for signs out of the Yellow Pages. Even neon designers with formal training plagiarize; within the sign community that is not necessarily considered a bad thing.
The author Tom Wolfe in his article about neon signs in Las Vegas observed that neon signs were a 20th century form of folk art, and indeed the artisans who make neon signs have many qualities that define the Japanese folk art theory of “mingei.”
Anonymous artisans make neon signs. Think of a favorite neon sign you’ve seen while traveling across the country. Do you know who made that sign? Most likely not. While most outdoor signs have small labels that no one but city building inspectors read, most inside signs are “unsigned.”
Neon signs are functional in daily life and exist in the world of common objects as distinct from “art.”. I personally get satisfaction in making something that is not just about me and my ideas but that serves another person and fits in with their vision and their life.
One of the most interesting aspects of my work is the randomness of all the weird people I work for: the shopkeepers and restauranteurs, the set builders, designers and photographers. I work with a lot of sole proprietors--people like me who are working on their own, working without a net.
Unlike my sculpture which is exhibited publicly but which more often than not ends up in storage, my sign work always has a home.
Today neon is threatened commercially by the rise of inexpensively manufactured LED-lit signs. LED signs may have a similar design to neon signs but instead of having the sensuous line of hand made luminous glass tubes, LED signs use a string of very bright machine made plastic points of light which look like so many glowing polka dots strung together. One of the current selling points of LED lighting for signs besides their unbreakable quality is that “anyone can do it.” By contrast it takes a long time to train and develop the talent of neon glass benders. Neon with its fragility and high labor costs verges on being obsolete, and as this happens it becomes a more interesting art material.