Austin Neon Sign Designers are Keeping the Electric Art Form Alive
The vibrant handmade signs have been disappearing for years, but local artisans continue to create magnificent pieces of glowing artwork
It’s no secret that Austin lights up at night, but some will tell you it burned a lot brighter back in the day. And we’re not talking about the buzz of nightlife (that is surely alive and well), but rather the neon giving life to its streets. These glowing signs sparked joy and awakened a calling for Todd Sanders on his first visit to Austin in 1990.
“As I drove through the city, I saw that neon, and all of a sudden I knew: this is where I want to live,” he remembers. “This is what I want to do. I want to make neon signs.”
The Art Institute of Houston graduate hooked his Spartan trailer up to his truck, drove it to Austin and found work at a neon shop called Ion Art, located then in downtown Austin. Artist Sharon Keshishian founded the studio in 1986 with her husband Greg after learning the art and science of neon bending at a small shop in Houston. Now, Ion Art occupies a 20,000-square-foot space in South Austin and employs 35 artists, designers, fabricators and project managers.
Neon bending consists of delicately blowing into different sized glass tubes while bending the molten glass into shapes. Natural gasses (neon, argan, mercury and helium all produce different colors) are added to the tubes and sealed off with electrodes on each end. The electrodes are then hooked up to transformers, which amp the power up to a high voltage to illuminate the tube. Keshishian has been the only female tube bender in Austin for the last 35 years, and one of few in the country — and now she’s teaching the art to her two daughters, ages 24 and 26.
“We started off as an art company, but then it evolved into a signage company because people started asking us for signage and architectural decor,” says Keshishian, who is best known for the colorful ATX sign outside of Whole Foods’ flagship store, but has designed and fabricated signs and sculptures (both with and without neon) all over the city. “Now it’s kind of circled back to being more of an art company again, which is very exciting.”
After Sanders honed his craft working for Keshishian, he branched out and opened Roadhouse Relics, a commercial neon sign shop of his own, in a rundown fruit stand on South 1st Street. His very first customer was Eddie Wilson, the owner of Threadgill’s.
“He’s like a father to me,” says Sanders. “He gave me a chance early on. I pulled into the parking lot of Threadgill’s and said, ‘Eddie, my name is Todd. I’m the only guy in town that loves neon as much as you and I want to start restoring and repairing it for you.’”
Sanders went on to restore and maintain hundreds of signs for Threadgill’s and a roster of other clients over the course of 25 years. But in 2005, thanks to the encouragement of his now-wife (who he proposed to in neon, of course!), he decided to turn his commercial sign shop into an art studio and gallery showcasing his own flawlessly distressed, vintage-inspired western Americana works.
“If you want one of my neon signs, it has to look like it’s been on Route 66 for 50 years,” he says. “And I don’t think I could have started that anywhere but Austin.”
For the first couple years after the rebrand, he focused on building props for movie sets, commissioned by directors like Robert Rodriguez and Terrence Malik. Then The New York Times listed Roadhouse Relics as a must-see gallery in Austin, and business blew up. Now he ships his large-scale neon art pieces all over the world. He’s created commissioned artwork for celebrities like Kasey Musgraves and Willie Nelson, and he’s shown in galleries alongside artists from Shepherd Fairey to Jasper Johns.
“I became interested in as a ‘folk art’ back in the seventies, especially after an esteemed Yale architecture professor declared that neon signs were in fact both art and architecture, and were worthy of academic study as such,” remembers Evan Voyles. “I have often said that neon signs are a sculpture, cloaked in a painting, underneath a line-drawing-in-light. There is no other medium like that!”
When Voyles grew up in Austin, he remembers his mom referring to Burnet Road as “the neon jungle” (which inspired his design company of the same name). He returned to the city after graduating from Yale as an English major, teaching himself the craft by dissecting and reassembling his extensive vintage neon collection. He built his first sign in 1991 and has now crafted over 500 more, including most of the iconic pieces that light up South Congress Avenue.
Though illuminated signs are just as popular as ever, proper neon is becoming a bit more obsolete, as many businesses are turning to less expensive LED lights for commercial signage. Furthermore, neon artists are finding it harder and harder to source the materials they need to keep creating; there is a shortage of colored glass tubes, which need to be imported from Murano, Italy, and many of the companies that used to sell neon components have gone out of business.
“In the ‘golden age’ of neon — the 1930s, 40s, and 50s — neon wasn’t just evocative: it was the dominant technology available,” explains Voyles. “Now we have plastic faces and vinyl graphics and fluorescent lamps and LEDs to compete, but none of those is in any way as evocative as genuine, handmade neon signage — probably because it is handmade and produces a light and an intention and gut feeling that no latter-day technology can match.”
“There’s something about neon — the gas and the glass — that kind of speaks to a more primal part that LED can never match,” Sanders agrees. “I always think of neon like a modern campfire or a full moon: it really affects you spiritually.”
Besides being replaced by newer technology, neon has been threatened through the years by dark sky ordinances and increasing regulations in cities across the U.S. While Austin hasn’t entirely outlawed it, the Historic Commission has implemented a lengthy and costly permitting process that makes it a lot more difficult to install new neon signage, particularly in certain neighborhoods — like downtown Austin.
“Back in the 1950s, the petroleum industry started trying to outlaw neon because a lot of the new plastic faces were made from petroleum,” explains Sanders. “So they started demonizing neon and it went from this elegant light form to becoming symbolic of the seedy part of town. And it’s unfortunate because, when neon left downtown Austin, that’s when a lot of downtown started dying.”
“All those downtown buildings used to have neon signs so it really is historical; if you look at some old pictures of Congress from the 40s through the 60s, nearly every other sign was neon,” says Keshishian, who says she has debated with the Austin Historical Society on multiple occasions and continues to advocate for what she calls a dying art form.
But Voyles sees things differently: “Neon — at least in Austin — is not a dying art, per se. It is thriving in the hands of the craftsmen and craftswomen who pursue it. There are fewer of us than ever, certainly, but we are busy.”
“I think what’s gonna really happen with neon is it’s going to be more used as an art medium in the future,” predicts Keshishian, whose most recent projects include a sculpture for The Rolling Stones latest tour and several neon installations for Elon Musk’s Starbase community in Boca Chica, Texas.
She’s also bringing neon to the people in other forms; from 2017 through 2019, Ion Art built dozens of fantastical, interactive neon installations and sculptures for a party called Surreal, which they hosted on their six-acre property. Though last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID, the next Surreal will be a 10-day neon extravaganza held at Zilker Botanical Garden this April, with funds supporting the city’s parks. What better way to illuminate this unparalleled urban art form?
“I got a good feeling about Austin from the neon, so I’m proud to have been a part of giving other people that feeling,” says Sanders. “What it does is create this identity, where the whole city becomes its own collective work of art.”