“The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story,” said British scientist Morris Travers when he first saw this noble gas electrified in 1890. And like most stories, this one has many sides. From post-war glitz to the rise of globalization, revolutions to renegade sign-hacking, Amie Knights talks to three neon trailblazers.
Collecting Communist propaganda wasn’t top of typographer David Hill’s list when he first visited Warsaw. But 12 years on, he’s co-founder of Europe’s largest neon museum. Once shrouded in decades of communist rule, uprisings and revolutions, the brilliance of these “electrographic masterpieces” is being reignited by David and his partner Ilona’s work.
No 1: David Hill
“These threads of light in the sky have become symbols and messages of brilliance, of beauty, that have given people hope. As I walked around the streets of Warsaw as a tourist 12 years ago, and saw these decaying monolithic neon signs, it was clear that they were there decades before I arrived – and yet they seemed so fresh. I was instantly captivated by them. It’s this noble gas that we’ve engineered, we’ve controlled. There’s this feeling humanity has managed to capture something so ethereal, so vaporous, and turn it into art. The physics of it alone is just absolutely mesmerizing.
“Neon’s Polish chapter began with the great ‘neonization’ campaign, commissioned by the socialist authorities in 1956/57. This was an extraordinarily large and culturally important campaign for the country. The best graphic designers of the day were used to create these electrographic masterpieces; they were the Polish Poster School artists. Most of the large cities and towns across the former Eastern Bloc countries had shimmering streets of neon light from the late 1950s through to the end of communism. It’s astonishing when you think our preconceived idea of Eastern Europe is always grey concrete, rather dark and drab. It was quite the opposite. But many of these neon signs were hollow promises. They were used to stupefy or dazzle people into thinking all was well, when it wasn’t.
“People came to love the signs. For a period, they changed the social fabric of the Eastern Bloc. But when the final revolution came, the authorities knew people had grown very fond of the neon signs, and they threatened to switch them off if the revolt didn’t stop. So the authorities not only gave birth to these neon signs, they also destroyed them, taking them away as a punishment. And in the early 1990s, we lost the remains in what was quaintly called the ‘great recycling scheme.’ That’s how we became activists. We stepped in and said, ‘Hey – can we have these signs?’ We acquired a vast warehouse of neon signs because they weren’t worth anything. Now, of course, they are. People see them as very important cultural artifacts.
“There’s this feeling humanity has managed to capture something so ethereal, so vaporous, and turn it into art.”
“A long time ago we felt we needed to engage the public with our work. When we started Renovation Action – a project to bring dimmed signs back to life – we knew we had to use crowdfunding. One of the signs we wanted to restore was going to cost thousands of dollars, so we had a party in the city in an old printing building and thousands of people came to support us. And we were able to restore this iconic neon sign that everybody loved and knew, and this gave us the impetus to expand the collection and understand that the public love the signs so much that they want to get involved in the restoration and renewal.
“Globalism has destroyed the social fabric of many towns and cities to the point where there’s no vernacular, there’s no local feel. At least neon did have a sort of local feel. It was designed with the public in mind. Colors were used that were sensitive to that area. The fact that neon is being replaced by LED is the manifestation of an immersive, globalist campaign to homogenize every city and every street. And I don’t think that works.
“In Warsaw we’ve started to see a neon renaissance. Lots of entrepreneurs are opening shops, cafés, bars, and are choosing a much more sensitive art form in the neon. The logos are much more sensitive, softer colors; they are rejecting LEDs and banners, and I like the way they’re finding a happy medium – a saturation of neon is as bad as a saturation of LED, but there’s something good in between. Warsaw once again is really a city of neon. Everywhere you look there’s a neon sign, which is very exciting, and I hope we’ve played a positive part in that.”
No. 2: John Law
You may know John Law as a co-founder of the Burning Man festival. But from secret societies to culture jamming escapades to otherworldly art installations, there’s one element that’s endured in his affection. With 30 years’ experience as a neon technician and artist, he has just a few thoughts on neon’s place in the world.
“When people see neon as garish and tacky, it’s totally subjective, and it’s completely stupid. It was a fad that was generated out of some schools of design in the 1960s that decided that neon was a low quality, common thing. Their whole intent was to lessen the impact of commercial signage on urban areas. If cities aren’t spaces for bright lights and intense human interaction, what should they be? I was working to get permits for neon in the city at a time when these university nimrods were affecting the urban landscape. In one place all this neon was being taken down and suddenly the authorities realized the streets were dark. So they had to spend thousands of dollars putting up streetlights. That’s how short-sighted this stuff is.
“Billboard signs are unavoidable. You can’t opt in. So I believe they should be part of the commons. Everyone should have a hack at them. That was the intent behind the Billboard Liberation Front (and sign-hacking troupe I forged with members of the Suicide Club). Basically, we were making fun of corporations by altering their billboards and advertisements. Our rubric was that we were not a political group, that we were corporate boosters, that we were supporting these corporations to improve their brand. We did it for 34 years.
“It was good-natured fun. If you internalize all the horror of the world, you can’t change it. The only way to deal with this stuff is through humor. You have to be able to laugh and point out the stupidity of it. And I think neon has that propensity for humor. The Joe Camel campaign hack is a good example of this. They’d found a way to sell cigarettes to kids using a cool cartoon camel. So I teamed up with Ron English (the precursor to Banksy) to alter the huge neon sign, in broad daylight. We parked the van outside, went up there in coveralls and mounted our alternative neon installation. We were there for three hours, and no one ever looked up.
“These billboard signs; they’re unavoidable. You can’t opt in. So I believe they should be part of the commons. Everyone should have a hack at them.”
“The eight-foot tall neon vagina was also a well-meant elaborate prank. I co-created this piece with an artist friend of mine, Dana Albany, under the alias Sarah Melmoth. It was entered in an all-women's art show in San Francisco in 2002 – a charity fundraiser working with the local San Francisco presentation of Eve Ensler and her Vagina Monologues. Our piece was installed above the entryway to the Masonic Temple auditorium,where Ensler presented the Vagina Monologues show. In the end it was bought at auction for $5,000, and the money raised went to a domestic violence charity and other charitable organizations. It was then donated to The Women’s Building in San Francisco where it still hangs today. I am still very proud of the fact that, with a good-natured prank, we helped raise cash for a good cause.
“Neon light elevates the spirit, I think. It’s a magic element. There’s nothing else like it. It’s the most aesthetically astonishing exponent of electricity. You get this mysterious property moving through this piece of glass, emitting this elemental, almost mystical light source. It’s futuristic, yet timeless. Like a future from the past.”
No. 3: Aric Chen
It’s a city so synonymous with neon’s glow that it almost permeates the air. But with Hong Kong shifting towards a slicker aesthetic and building regulations getting tough on rebel signs, it’s no longer the neon-lit colorscape it once was. We explore neon’s boom, bust and possible rebirth with M+ Museum’s curator-at-large Aric Chen.
“Neon is the visual language of Hong Kong. ‘The neon lights are omnipresent’ – that’s what cinematographer Christopher Doyle said to me when we were talking about his work on Wong Kar Wai’s early films. When you look at these films, you really don’t see many actual neon signs, but the light is in the atmosphere. And I think that really captures how prevalent they were here, how much they came to define the city. It was seedy, it was respectable; it was low-end, it was high-end; it was glitzy, it was wholesome. It really represented everything and everyone. But things are very different now.
“People still think of Hong Kong as a neon-lit city. But it’s really not. There are a few pockets here and there. But the fact that impression still remains is a reflection not only of how powerful they were during the formative decades of Hong Kong’s history (the 1960s–1990s), but it also speaks of how quickly the signs have disappeared. It’s been so quick, we haven’t even had time to process it.
“There’s no doubt that Hong Kong is becoming a cleaner, slicker place. The disappearance of neon is a combination of things. A lot of these signs were not necessarily legal – you’d have signs hung too far into the streets and some of them had never been authorized in the first place – so they’re being forcibly removed. Why are we suddenly enforcing these laws on signs that have hung over the street without incident for 30 years? Are we suddenly a more law-abiding city? Or do they facilitate other agendas? Well, if you look at what’s being built as part of redevelopment, it’s mostly larger projects, glass and steel, and there’s really nowhere to hang a neon sign. Another factor, of course, is the rise of LEDs.
“That flickering you always see in neon – which is actually molecules bounding around – somehow makes the light source feel not only more alive but also flawed. And I think in those flaws, we see a kind of humanity that you don’t get with the cleanness of LEDs. I was reading about how a lab made a breakthrough with robot interactions with people, by programming mistakes into the behavior. It was these mistakes that allowed humans to engage with them more. And I think neon has a similar thing to it. You can see the hand in neon signs. Although this is an industrial, electrified material, it allows us to experience a kind of natural phenomenon.
“You can see the hand in neon signs. Although this is an industrial, electrified material, it allows us to experience a kind of natural phenomenon.”
“The neon signs project (a crowdsourced interactive map of Hong Kong’s neon signs) was inspired by a gigantic neon cow that had been hanging over a steak house since 1977. We heard it was coming down and contacted the owners and told them of our interest in having it for our collection. They were still fighting the building department to keep it, but in the meantime, we were informed of other at-risk signs and realized the rate at which this was happening. So we created this online map and asked people to share pictures of neon signs with us. We knew there would be a small group of fanatics that would get involved, but the response far exceeded what we’d hoped for. Sadly, Sammy’s Kitchen is now finally closing. But we managed to save the cow at least.
“There are very few people making neon signs in Hong Kong now. We filmed this old neon master, Lau Wan, before he passed away in August 2017. In the film, he talks about neon as a dying craft. Whereas there used to be hundreds, if not thousands, of makers, we can probably count them on our fingers now. But maybe we need to think of it as artisanal craft, like vinyl or film. It certainly isn’t going to be what it was. And, you know, times change. A city’s job is to evolve; we just hope it evolves in a good way. Maybe one day, years down the line, we’ll want to do a project on Hong Kong’s disappearing LED signs [laughs].”
What is Neon?
Neon (Ne) is a noble gas with atomic no.10.
Neon lighting is created when glass tubes containing low-pressure neon (and/or other gases) with electrodes at either end are electrified.
The electricity ionizes the gas which then emits a brightly colored glow. Neon itself glows reddish-orange; other colors are created by using different gases, phosphors, or colored glass.