If there is gas, let it be a noble gas.
All the charm of a Bates Motel.
Being around neon gives me a borrowed sense of badassery. Vampires probably like neon. I might keep some pretty vampirish hours, but I’m neither a badass nor a vampire—unfortunately—which is why I dig the urban edgelord aesthetic of neon, especially when it’s on an old brick wall in a skeevy club in downtown Tokyo or Los Angeles, and I’m wearing winged eyeliner and leather pants. If you see me in neon light and blur your eyes, this narrative—Stacey Is Cool—nearly coheres. Well, it does if you’ve had a drink or two.
I grew up on Southern California’s endless freeways where neon signage was formerly plentiful. On the desert highway to Indio, Palm Springs, Seven Springs, there were motels with vacancy/no vacancy signs in flickering pink neon. We’d be driving along, my mother and I, and even the endless billboards would eventually drop away, and there was desert in every direction and the cold mineral smell of the sand, and then a distant glow would appear.
At first, I’d feel comforted by a suggestion of life amid this desolation. Around us, mountainous shapes towered over the highway, and beneath a vault of stars there was the vast nothingness of cacti and scrub. But once we got closer, it was the cheerless, black-windowed motels that seemed sinister, despite the carnival allure of their signs.
I didn’t have words for it at the time, but a weird dissociative loneliness was born in those moments and continued throughout much of my adulthood. It was likely why I became a writer.
Few are the rooms and walls that cannot be improved by a judicious use of neon. It is a generous medium in that any way you bend the tubes will result in something beautiful. But it’s what we associate with it that equally holds us spellbound: neon is the language of vice and sin, of carnivals, casinos, red-light districts, and bars. It promises you something slightly dirty and lurid. It lies to you and takes your money. And yet, at the same time, neon can be soothing because by itself, it has no narrative to it at all, no story.
Art Review says artists are drawn to neon because of its “contradictory appeal … its ability to embody both the idea of an optimistic urban modernity and its flipside of a darker dystopian underbelly.” And it’s true. All this and more we derive from some low-voltage lights consisting of a glass tube filled with an inert gas, a noble gas — neon — attached to electrodes.
Most people believe that different shades of neon are obtained by staining the glass tubes that contain it, but that’s not true. Each noble gas glows in a specific color when electricity passes through it, releasing its characteristic color of light. For example, helium glows pink. Krypton is green. Argon is blue. Neon glows red. Xenon creates a gray or bluish-gray. Mixing gasses produces up to 150 intermediate colors, proving that there’s as much science as craft to making beautiful neon.
Fluorescent lights use mercury vapor, by the way, which is not a noble gas.
In the following photos, you will see neon’s stunning versatility, its commercial appeal, yes, but also its artistic purpose. Be sure to do a gut check each time your eyes lock onto a photo. How does it make you feel? If you had an unlimited decorating budget, would you use neon, and if so, what kind?
I dream of one day having my own writer’s studio. In one version of that dream, my studio has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a library ladder, a walk-in fireplace, and French doors that let out onto a rose garden. In anther version, it’s in an airplane hangar with street graffitied walls, stereos booming out industrial electronic music or Nine Inch Nails, plus hundreds of pieces of neon across the room.
Here then, in no particular order, is some of my favorite neon, just to give you a taste of how delicious it really is.
Ivan Navarro’s "Threshold” (2009) from the 53rd Venice Biennale
“Good Boy, Bad Boy,” by Bruce Nauman
“Echelle” by Ron Haselden, 2009
Steve Fitch, from his book Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks
Another one from Steve Fitch, from his book Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks
Starlite Motel, Mesa, Arizona; December 28, 1980, Photo by Steve Fitch.
Nam June Paik – Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
You'r [sic] My Favourite Mistake (Pink), 2015, Rebecca Mason
Not even a reverse image search could yield the name of this artist. Not sure if it’s Monze Rouwe, as seen in the photograph, or if that’s the name of the person who took the photograph. Regardless, it’s epic.
Impenetrable Room by Iván Navarro
Rolling Scones café in London.
And finally, a video I urge you to watch about neon artist Bruce Nauman’s work. Love him or hate him, you can’t dismiss the specificity of his vision.