Agency of Light

Tripping the Neon Lights Fantastic

Neon brightens Pato's Tacos
photograph by Kenny Braun

The fiery red of the Pontiac chief's head is still burned into my memory like one of those funny phosphene op-art patterns, the kind generated when you press on your eyelids too hard for too long. It was a simple Pontiac logo, outlined in neon, encircled by chasing, flickering incandescent bulbs, but for some reason, it sticks in my brain like a red hot tattoo, surfacing every time I think about our family's move from New England to South Florida in 1966 when I was four years old. Absolutely nothing of note was happening when this vision burned its way into my iconography - we were parked in our Nash Rambler, it was nighttime... that's as far as the memory goes - but the big red chief hangs there like a star in my little kid universe, an electric star, buzzing and clicking with each light in his perpetual on-and-off routine. Filed somewhere close by in that same universe is the blazing beacon for the mom & pop dump we lived in while our house was being built. The Barbizon Lodge in Riviera Beach had this huge impressive sign, hearkening back to its day as the main oasis for road-weary tourists passing through this particular stretch of US1. By 1966, the superhighways were fast dooming these roadside mom & pops to their place in the history books. As I recall, each letter on the sign was lined in two colors of neon tubing, which would flick and rock, back and forth. The whole shebang was surrounded by incandescent marquee chasers. At least this is how I remember it. I grew up close to the damn thing, but cannot corroborate these early memories; in the name of modernization, the neon was trashed and replaced with one of those tacky molded plastic Seventies numbers.

Neon obviously left more than just images in my mind. Retinal burn was not the cause of my fascination for this strange advertising craft which eventually would be recognized as an art. What compelled me? The shimmering argon, neon, and helium in the tubes? The acrobatic bend of the glass tubes? Neon as an artform represented or followed so many shifts in post-world-war American culture, that for me, its disappearance from the roadways was a shock that didn't register until years later.

The Seventies in Florida were like the Seventies anywhere else: Sleek, streamlined corporate logos began to fill the landscape left by the forcing out of unique cafes and motels. Identical franchises sprang up where goofy, neon-emblazoned monuments once stood. Neon became the stuff of art galleries, discos, and TV shows with retro Fifties themes. Only Times Square and Las Vegas held their own as true outposts of neon sign art. Florida would not experience her neon renaissance until the mid-Eighties, until the culture shock of a little phenomenon known as Miami Vice.

When Hollywood came to town to make its little cop show, Miami Beach, the ghost town memorial to art deco days gone by, got a facelift like no one had ever seen. The new coat of paint wrought investors, and urban renewal took on a new look - or an old one, to be precise. The clean lines of South Beach and the Miami skyline were the perfect canvas for our old friend neon. Suffering through the questionable fashion taste of three-day stubble, rolled-up jacket sleeves, and men without socks was well worth the trauma when one considered the accompanying payoff.

Jumping ahead to today and a thousand or so miles west to Texas, it seems that not only was this neon renaissance not limited to South Florida, but its scope lasted beyond temporal fad, as well. One look around Austin delivers a solid argument in its favor. From the now-classic Austin skyline, with its friendly glow stripes of blue, white, and green, to the downtown club district with signs reflecting modern, traditional, and retro style, all the way out to the neighborhoods and suburbs lined with shopping centers etched and outlined in the radiating tubes of brilliant color, Austin's neon illuminates design sensibilities which mesh well with the city's image as a mecca for musicians and artists. Local neon artists are sustained with enough overflow business from larger, factory sign shops to eke out a respectable level of success. Much of their work has become the bedrock for what is subtly accepted as Austin's urban style.

Imagine Austin without the neon skyline, without the Austin Motel sign on South Congress or the New Austin Motel sign on South
I-35. Think of it without the Amy's Ice Cream Cows on Sixth Street, the glass-brick and neon of the Seaholm Power Plant on Cesar Chavez, the famous "Electric" red neon of the Electric Lounge, the throwback of the Continental Club's Fifties placard, or the over-the-top abandon of Ninfa's colorful Mexican kitsch on 183. It just isn't Austin.

"Neon no longer represents the urban decay that was symbolized by all those old signs and fixtures that nobody would fix," says Hayward Neon's John Hayward, who has been bending tubes in Austin since 1986. Neon has "become part of the urban scene again," he says. Hayward should know. With Evan Voyles of Neon Jungle, he has been responsible for quite a bit of the neon resurgence in town.

Between them, Hayward and Voyles are to credit for such landmark designs as Triple-A News at the corner of Oltorf & Lamar, Dance Across Texas on Hwy 71, Catfish Parlour on North 183, and Stubb's at Eighth & Red River. Right across the street from Stubb's are two projects they created out of restored fixtures: the bubbly Caucus Club sign and the neighboring Club DeVille icon, which was created out of a piece of an old Best Western sign. "Everything old is new again," is not just a trite saying to neon artists. The aesthetic is grounded in nostalgia; that is much of its current charm. Some stunning American sign art has sat dormant until restorers discovered and refurbished it. Neon Jungle's Voyles was a neon sign collector and restorer in Buda until he was burned out of his shop in 1994.

The story probably sounds like eerie déjà vu to Sharon and Greg Keshishian of Austin's Ion Art. The old shop in the westend arts district was burned out just over a year ago. They've hardly missed a beat, however, and are back doing gangbusters business from a warehouse in South Austin. Thumbing through the charred remains of their sample book, it's a sure bet that in a typical stroll through town, you'll whack your head on some of the Keshishian's neon art. Again, we're talking landmark: the animated Toy Joy sign on 29th & Guadalupe, Mexico Tipico on East Sixth, Travelfest on West Sixth, Shady Grove on Barton Springs Road's restaurant row, Las Manitas Avenue Cafe on Congress, Güero's on South Congress, Dobie Mall, and our own electric Austin Chronicle banner at 40th & I-35.

abino Rubio has just strolled into Hayward Neon. Hayward recognizes him. Two years ago, Rubio had Hayward design a neon tribute - a simple two-foot sign which read: UT-95 - for his stepdaughter graduating from the University of Texas. Well, it's 1997 and daughter Jennifer's turn. She's graduating from Texas Women's University and Rubio wants to commemorate the event with an equally stunning trophy. The men discuss color, size, and cost for the new sign - TWU-97 - as Rubio beams almost as brightly as some of the fixtures in the shop. He's proud of his idea. The kids think it's real cool. As Rubio leaves, Hayward and I pick up our conversation about the mysterious hypnotism and hold of the glowing friendly lights.

"For some reason, neon used to be equated with things like prostitution and seedy bars," Hayward laughs and gleefully restates his original thesis, "Nowadays, it's just there, always in the background, coloring our world; it's part of our urban landscape."

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