Signs of the Times - June 2016 - (Page 112)
Ed it o r i a lly S p e aki n g
By Robin Donovan
is ST's Editor-inChief. Email her at
Made by Hand
Neon makes a resurgence among younger generations.
n 2012, I had a side job profiling local business
owners for a publication that capitalized on Cincinnati's
growing tech infrastructure - and venture capitalists.
So, I talked to software developers, app programmers,
a woman who developed a healthy feeding-tube formula
and a tough ICU nurse who provided bio-recovery
services (think: person who cleans up an apartment
after an unattended death). I also interviewed local
artisans who seemingly sprang up alongside the tech
geeks. Sometimes, they even partnered to provide
You know how they say that if you go to either
end of the political spectrum, the extremists start
to sound alike? So it was here. Niche interests, tiny
companies, uncertain payrolls, funding difficulties -
it all matched up, except that angel investors always
doted more heavily on the geeks.
The difference I saw was that while the geeks
jumped from one app to the next, even one company
to the next, the artists were devoted to their media.
As a musician, I get it: All media, like all instruments,
are not created alike. Some, for whatever ineffable
reason, are simply "ours" in ways the others never
Four years later, I've noticed something else. The
developers and programmers have scattered, many
following investors and new opportunities, while the
artists have mostly stayed. It's structural: Some of
the tech folk were recruited to Cincinnati to launch
startups, then returned "home" when funds - or ideas
- dried up. But the artists, having neither funding nor
a home elsewhere, planted themselves.
Meet Brian Stuparyk. He's the proprietor of Steam
Whistle Letterpress in Cincinnati, where he cranks
out greeting cards, posters, art prints, rubber stamps
and even novelty socks (they have letterpresses on
them - and are currently sold out). He was busy when
we spoke in 2012, and more recently told another local
publication he's clocking 80-85-hour workweeks.
Brian popped into my mind while I was reading an
LA Weekly piece about the resurgence of neon on the
West Coast. You can tell me if I'm wrong, but this is
my view: A swath of neon benders was pushed out of
the industry due to the twin pressures of LEDs and
the recession. Today, "maker" culture has a new generation interested in the authenticity of neon. Of course,
those able to teach the craft are increasingly rare.
Neon artists - and I believe neon is increasingly
being elevated to an art form - are seeing an uptick
112 SIGNS OF THE TIMES June 2016
in demand, perhaps because the competition has
gone out of business. One artist told LA Weekly she's
begun to stock her own raw materials because so few
suppliers offer them.
As neon benders have retired or been weeded out
by economic pressures, stories like hers will become
more common. I still love neon; I think most people
do. It was one of the first subjects I ever covered for
ST, and it always catches my eye.
Here's the thing: Stuparyk is running a successful
business as a letterpress operator, but that doesn't
mean we can expect that technology to make a mainstream comeback. It means that there's niche interest
in elevating the craft to an art form (Stuparyk is an
art-school graduate) and an opportunity for a few to
make a decent living fulfilling that need.
It's a shame, certainly. I'd love to see more neon
when I'm out and about. But I also understand the
pressures, including energy consumption concerns,
that have led many to LEDs. It's like lightbulbs. I
prefer the old incandescents, but I buy and use CFLs
whenever I can. The energy consumption difference
is too great not to.
So, I feel a certain measure of security around neon.
It has too many fans to every truly leave us. There
is doubtless a loss of skill as neon bending becomes
less viable as a profession, but those who still specialize in it seem to be seeing more demand for their
work with fewer providers now available. What
causes angst, I think, is the evolution of neon from an
everyday item to specialty signage, or even fine art.
Like any big change, it's not without its
elements of grief, loss and pain, particularly for those
who have invested their careers in this work - and
those of us who have been charmed by neon's alluring
(and, yes, uniform) glow. n
P.S. The LA Weekly piece is worth a read. Google
"LA Weekly resurgence of neon." So, too, is Steve
Aust's neon gallery on p. 76.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Signs of the Times - June 2016
Signs of the Times - June 2016
Columns & Departments
Tips for Effectively Marketing Your Signs to Millenials
Technology Review - The Summa F Series F2630 Flatbed Cutter/Router
Technology Review - The Durst Rhotex 180 TR
Sign Museum News
Undertaking Monumental Tasks
The Light of Our Lives
Cool Digital Printers
Enter ST’s Vehicle Graphics Contest
Signs of the Times - June 2016