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Neon city

Where weird Austin and techy Austin meet

Austin “believes” in vintage-style neon, says Evan Voyles. “We pursue it. It's a viable craft here. That's probably not true in a lot of cities.”

There may be no designer who’s left so deep an imprint on downtown Austin as the antiques dealer turned neon restorer turned neon artist. “I've got, at any time, 75 signs along South Congress,” says Voyles, leaning over his work table, busily scraping the plastic coating off several pieces of wiring with a red Swiss army knife to expose the frayed fibers within. “I like to maintain that number. It makes me happy.”

Austin born and bred, Voyles lives in his uniform: dusty cowboy boots, two necklaces, a bandana, two pairs of glasses propped atop his chin-length grey hair, and jeans, distressed legitimately. He recalls childhood road trips with his family along “the Burnet Road,” as he says “old-timers” call it, out of town to his grandparents’ in Abilene. The drive featured more and more neon signs along the way, especially beyond the city’s limits. His mom would sort of groan at the sight of the signage, and dubbed the road “the neon jungle.”

“Like, it was seedy and disgusting,” he laughs, “but also dangerous and lascivious. And of course, me being me, I thought, ‘Yeah. Neon jungle.’ A completely different response than hers. I thought they looked amazing.”

Years after those road trips, not long after he decided against pursuing a degree in architecture at Yale, Voyles named his neon sign company the Neon Jungle. Those early tandem interests, neon and architecture, panned out into a viable, impactful career.

“In working on old signs, this is as close as I get to being an architect,” he says. “I get to design and build a small structure that's going to sit out by the road, for hopefully more than 10 years, before it gets torn down. The fact is, it might get torn down. The American business landscape is volatile.”

The Austin of 2017 is not the Austin of 26 years ago, when Voyles first set up shop, let alone of any decade before. The tech industry found its Texan foothold; the population ballooned; neighborhoods transformed, displacing and pricing out much of the poor and working class; and many a weird business worthy of Austin’s unofficial slogan came and went. But neon signs—if not necessarily the originals—remain along main thoroughfares South Congress, Burnet, and Lamar, and elsewhere around town.

Funky Austin and profit-incentive Austin meet in the middle at neon: something new that looks like it’s old. Something human-made.

The cultural obsession with vintage, in Austin, elsewhere in Texas, and nationwide, came about, Voyles says, because vintage somehow denotes tangible authenticity in a digital world. “I think part of that is simply trying to counterbalance something in their soul,” he says. “It's like, we kind of feel a little weird about this. We live for tech, we depend on tech, but we want something real.”

Neon signs aren’t always neon. It’s become a catchall term for electric signage whose letters and lines are formed by long glass tubes that emit a colorful glow, but neon is only one of the inert noble gases that can be trapped within glass tubing for illumination. The others are argon and mercury. Neon is a red gas, while argon and mercury are blue. Craftsmen create other colors either by using tinted glass tubes or coating the inside of clear glass with a phosphorus powder.

Todd Sanders, a neon artist who’s lived and worked in Austin for 25 years, prefers to use tinted glass, though it’s harder to come by these days. “That’s the good stuff,” he says.

The very first so-called “neon signs” used neon only, so the name stuck. Georges Claude invented the electric sign technology in Paris in 1910, and until his patent ran out, everyone who made a neon sign had to pay him for the rights, says Sanders. But really, it’s less accurate to say that Claude created neon, and more truthful to say that he harnessed it.

“It's in the air,” says Sanders. “You're breathing neon right now. It's .00046 percent of the air you're breathing, but neon is everywhere.”

Claude brought neon to the U.S. in 1923; neon as we know it arrived in Austin about 10 years later.

Neon occupies a sort of intersection of purpose. It’s a science, requiring knowledge of chemistry. It’s an art, garnering appreciation today for its nostalgic vibe and classic aesthetic. And it’s a tool of business. Greg Keshishian, the engineering half of the husband-and-wife team behind sign company Ion Art, calls neon “functional art,” since their work doubles as advertising.

“And I think it's a dying art,” adds Sharon Keshishian, a glassblower by trade. “It's getting harder and harder for us to get supplies, to get glass, to get neon tubes.” Many U.S. cities have regulated against exposed neon in their sign codes over the years, leading to a decrease in demand—and in manufacturing—nationwide for the materials needed to create neon signs. Europe doesn’t regulate neon in the same way, so most of these products must be imported for use in the U.S. And, says Sharon, “We're getting older. There aren't a lot of young, up-and-coming glassblowers.”

Perhaps it’s that concern for the medium’s future that inspired the Keshishians and their staff to create the neon exhibit they called “The Surreal Jungle,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of neon (albeit seven years overdue), held in the parking lot outside their Austin factory on November 18. During a site visit, engineers and artisans labor over an array of neon animals across the factory floor: a blue jaguar with yellow eyes, a lion’s head with a pink backing that takes up the entire surface of a sprawling work table, a gorilla requiring around 20 hours of glassblowing.

“Don’t touch any of these fires,” warns Sharon as she leads the way into the glassblowing room, where several lit ribbon burners take up space in the middle of the floor. A “Danger: High Voltage” sign hangs on the far wall.

Sharon plucks a yellow tinted tube off the sample wall and rotates it over the burner, turning the horizontal flame from blue to orange. Glass must be heated to 1,250 degrees to become liquid, she says. She’s not wearing any gloves.

“Oh, no one wears gloves.” The tube bends into a round dip in the middle of what was once a straight rod. “And you burn the crap out of yourself. You get burned, and you get shocked, and you get cut.” Heat doesn’t travel through glass like it does through metal, though, she reassures me.

The Keshishians and their team are responsible for a host of signs around town, neon and not. There’s something special about neon to Sharon, though: its longevity. “Neon will pretty much last until you break it,” she says. “It’s not like a light bulb, or a fluorescent tube. It doesn’t have a life span.”

But just because neon signs can theoretically last forever doesn’t mean that they do. Other factors are at play.

Sharon and Greg list signs of theirs that are gone like they’re listing names of the long dead. They’ve been making signs in Austin for three decades, and many of the businesses they’ve served have shuttered. South Congress Mexican restaurant Manuel’s was Sharon’s first neon sign, however, and it’s alive and kicking. “Same neon, still working, and it’s over 30 years old.”

It’s not just some of the oldest among the Keshishians’ signs that met their fate on the side of the road and in salvage yards. Very few of the neon signs that lured Sanders to the city and to the art form 25 years ago are around today. The famed Terminix bug on North Lamar? Gone. The Night Hawk restaurant on South Congress and Riverside? Gone. The first neon sign to arrive in Austin in the 1930s—for the Blue Bonnet Court apartments and motel on Guadalupe—endures, though in poor condition. Butter Krust Bakery’s sign is down, but Sanders managed to save it when the shop closed. He sold the portion that read “Baking Company” to a collector, and kept the red cursive “Austin” for himself, mounting it atop the turquoise trailer behind his studio and gallery space, Roadhouse Relics.

“There's some that have gone away, and I kind of miss them,” says Sanders during a brief tour of Roadhouse Relics, itself a landmark for the “Greetings from Austin” postcard mural he and collaborators painted on the building’s southern side back in 1998. “You're driving down the road and you just look and, ‘Oh, look, that sign is gone.’”

The disappearance of Austin’s most iconic neon signs speaks more to the difficulty of keeping a business in Austin open today than any dwindling interest in neon. These signs aren’t just landmarks or art, after all; they’re publicity, beckoning consumers inside the shops they sit atop. While the city is still an ideal place to start a small business, only one in five small businesses nationwide survive their first year, and only half make it to five years.

Business closures may mean more disappearing neon, but they also mean more business for studios like Ion Art, a dichotomy its owners grapple with. “It's kind of a hard balance,” says Ion’s operations manager, Wesleann Mendell. “The turnover is good for business, and as Austin grows, you have more people wanting projects and wanting signs, and the developer money is there for art and sculpture, and it offers great opportunities. But on the other hand, you are sad to see these projects, and these clients you’ve got to know, go.”

Time-tested Threadgill’s—originally a beer joint and music venue, today a Southern restaurant with two locations—has become a warehouse for some of Austin’s old, salvaged neon. Sanders curated the collection for the South Austin spot’s beer garden and interior, rescuing signs when he saw that the businesses they advertised were folding.

The Night Hawk, as it happens, is here, taking up an entire wall inside the restaurant. The Terminix bug sits outside, resting on a fence. There are a couple of Sanders’s originals here too, including an exploding red, yellow, and white star mounted on the ceiling. The Los Angeles Times called Threadgill’s “the town's first theme restaurant, and the theme was Austin.”

But Threadgill’s is not developer-proof. Owner Eddie Wilson told the Austin Chronicle in late October that the Riverside Drive location will close after South by Southwest in 2018 due to increasing land costs; a week later, however, the establishment reported a slight reprieve thanks to a longtime regular working with real estate investors to keep the lights on a bit longer. How much longer is TBD, and so is the question of where Threadgill’s neon collection will go if and when the time comes.

Restoring an old neon sign means more than refurbishing it. There’s a great deal of research involved—for some particularly old pieces, the only archival images available are in black and white, making it near impossible to discern what colors were used originally.

Sanders calls himself a “neon archaeologist.” It takes a great deal of time, patience, and detective work to figure out what the sign’s creators intended. He used to restore more neon signs, including one for Austin’s State Theater, a big project that Sharon and Greg Keshishian at Ion Art later restored, too. But it’s young person’s work, he says, and he spends more of his time now on consulting.

The process of restoring the State Theater’s 1935 marquee blade was particularly intensive, say the Keshishians. For starters, the original neon letters were uranium, which isn’t made anymore for safety reasons. Greg and his team removed all remnants of the old neon; completely gutted the inside of the porcelain enamel sign, including the electrical wiring and neon transformers; shoved out 79 years’ worth of pigeon poop; replaced the electrical components; made the majority of the neon from scratch; and polished the porcelain enamel.

Otherwise, say the Keshishians, they’re more often restoring their own pieces, like their Shady Grove sign from 1992, than fixing the really historic stuff. “Austin doesn't have a huge amount of restoration,” says Sharon. “There just isn't a lot of old neon that got saved.”

There aren’t a lot of folks interested in saving old neon—except, perhaps, for Voyles.

On top of creating hundreds of pieces all over town—like the marquees for Austin-born movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse, and a roping cowboy riding a bucking rabbit for legendary antiques store Uncommon Objects, where Voyles sold his first original neon sign 24 years ago—Voyles maintains much of Austin’s remaining pre-1960 neon. (The “sweet spot” for neon, says Voyles, is 1929 to 1959.) The Austin Motel’s sign dates to 1938, Nau’s Enfield Drug and Anthony’s Dry Cleaning to 1947, and Favorite Liquor to 1939. Voyles’s fuchsia SOUL sign for Hotel Saint Cecilia is a hybrid of original and restoration work, its letters rescued from a forgotten casino on the way to Louisiana that originally spelled “LOU S.”

Vintage informs everything Voyles pursues, whether it’s custom work or restoration.

It’s the aesthetic that Sanders works in as well. He’ll often leave the bases of his signs, pre-neon-tube step, outside behind his studio for months at a time to weather them. The rust effect is, he says, “as Mother Nature intended.”

Neon is already inherently vintage, connoting nostalgia in its glow, its simplicity, its buzz when it flickers on at dusk. It’s a lighting and advertising method that has been beat in price and ease by fluorescent and LED; it’s a choice.

The irony, Voyles notes, is that Austin’s uniqueness—and yes, weirdness—lured outside developers and investors to the city, and Voyles’s neon signs are, in part, responsible. “I made this mess as surely as any developer did. Not single-handedly, but if you want to blame somebody, blame me. I did my part to make South Congress cool, and now we're going to suffer the consequences of that. We've made it too cool for us to stay, possibly.” He points out that Austin mainstay Uncommon Objects, where he sold his first sign in the early ’90s, just left its longtime location, unable to pay South Congress’s steep rent.

Austin suffers from a particular malady that other vintage-loving cities, be it downtown LA or Brooklyn or “keep it weird” sister Portland, wrestle with as well, but perhaps not to the same extent: the “you should’ve been here when it was cool” syndrome. Scroll through the comments on any story on the Austin Chronicle or the Austin American-Statesman about closures and openings in Austin, and read the litany of variations on “RIP Austin” for proof.

“Austin has pretty much died to me right around 2005-2008,” reads one comment on the Austin Chronicle’s story about Threadgill’s possible closure.

“Austin died long before that,” reads another.

“[…] All I can say is, ‘be careful Austin... that you don't turn into another Silicon Valley?’ [sic]” reads another.

Voyles is taking care that it doesn’t.

“You hear a lot of people—a lot of them are my friends—complaining, ‘Oh, the old Austin is dead,’” says Voyles, stepping aside from his work table and balancing in his cowboy boots atop the matting of metal rods lying on his studio’s floor. “Well, not while I'm alive it ain't. ‘The old Austin is unavailable to us.’ That may be true, but I'm going to fight that all the way down. ‘The old Austin was better.’ Fuck you. The old Austin was just the old Austin. The new Austin, whatever that is, is exactly as good as we make it, and it's our duty to make it as good as we can.”

Voyles turns back to scraping wires with his Swiss army knife, then quickly pivots around and sticks the blade into the wood table. “That one really pisses me off. It's just like, shut up and get to work.”