Electric Art: Studying Illuminated Signs Around Town

This post was copied from my other site BotsWorkshop.com which I am letting expire

I’m interested in making art that has a life of its own, and I realized that we are surrounded by some very impressive pieces.  You see them everyday, illuminated signs beckoning you to come inside and do business or buy food. Recently I started exploring art and light, and how to combine light, images, and text to create cool pieces of art.   We dismiss the significance of signs because they are for commercial purposes, and we get the point rather quickly. Yet if we change our perception as to appreciate the work gone into them, then you can see another world of artisans that surround us.    Let’s take a look at some of the electric art around my town, Nanaimo, BC, Canada.

Signs, Electric Art


You can’t miss the 40 ft golden arches rising from the side of the road.   If you’re a parent with hungry kids in tow, the dread you feel as you approach slowly through traffic only to hear the pleas of hungry voices behind you.  Even at a couple of miles away, their radar can pick it up faster than you can find a detour.

The sign is not technically marvelous, unless you tried to recreate it yourself, then you might ponder where you’re going to find a 3d printer that big.  Or how do you prevent it from toppling over, year after year in the high winds. McDonalds has had a sign there for the past 36 years that I’ve been in town, an icon in a sea of other signs competing for our attention.

Around the world travel

Around the World Travel Service has the last of the revolving signs in Nanaimo, BC

This is the last of it’s kind in Nanaimo, the revolving signs.  I’m not sure if mechanically moving signs are a pain to keep up, or a bylaw was passed to prevent moving signs from being a distraction or an eye sore.   Nanaimo area has had others, but most have been torn down. The one exception is Around The World Travel, they have been in business since 1958. The signs looks to be from another generation, but I am amazed that this continues to look great and spins year after year as it did when it was new.

There are a couple of items that I want to mention.  The convex plexiglass on each side. I believe that the sign would have to be hand painted on the inside of the glass, which would be tricky enough.  I have a hard time drawing straight lines on a piece of paper, so how they managed such well formed letters on the inside of a bubble is particularly a neat trick.

Also what is the mechanism that revolves it?  If a motor drives a belt on a pulley then I would believe the belt would wear quite easily after a while and would need replacing.   A motor driving gears would allow for longevity but wouldn’t allow for slippage during high winds or other interference, causing the motor to blow out.  Either way, each would need maintenance, and this is a testament to how great the sign continues to look today.

Electric Neon Signs A GoGo

Still one of the coolest signs made today are signs made with Electric Neon Tubes.  They allow for bright vibrant colors, that stand out after dark. The tubes are simple glass tubes with a mixture of Neon Gases that when an electric charge is run through them, the gases glow brightly in different colors.   Glass tubes are heated until red hot and the glass easily bends, but it takes a dedicated artist’s hand to do it right. Thanks to Wired magazine for creating this video with an artist to demonstrate this delicate procedure.

The Avalon

The Avalon went over the top when they remodelled the theater in town.   The have blinking lights, tall towering lights, neon tubes, even the token burnt out tube around the A.   When they first put up the sign, I thought the Avalon Signage was busy and a bit hard to take, but the theatre does well to live up to the hype, and it certainly feels like a night out when you visit.

Devlin Electric Sign Co

A significant contributor to the signs on Vancouver Island.   Devlin Electric Sign Company has been in business since 1963, and have one of the best neon signs in town.   The sign has the deepest red neon that looks amazing at night. The camera had a hard time picking it up in the low light conditions.   The design and colors are very effective and I’ll be keeping an eye out for this sign as I pass by.

Castaway Motel

There is a motel close to downtown on the highway, I’ve never stayed there, and would not be in my top five options to stay in town, but I do love their sign.  The Castaway Motel sign is a neon sign portraying a character that has been castaway on an island and and enjoys the company of the twinkling lights from a treasure chest as he kicks back on a beach.  The sign is an icon in Nanaimo, and I worry that the Motel will one day close shop, or stop keeping up with the sign, but they have managed to do a decent job keeping up with the sign.

Modern Cafe

This sign is another icon in town and also uses a ribbon of flashing light bulbs to create a daylight experience.   The restaurant itself has been recycled from it’s original coffee shop to a chic modern eatery. The sign has remained unchanged, although it has been kept up.   I have seen it go through some hard times in the 90’s, but is now bright vibrant and calls you in, once the sun goes down.

Northridge Village

This strip mall uses a mixed media representation of sculpture and light to create stunning symbol in the night sky.   Unfortunately this side of the sign has a couple tubes burnt out. Which is a persistent problem with neon tubes, either the gas in the tube has escaped, or the electrode burnt out.   Either situation means the tube needs to be recreated and replaced. At 40ft in the air, that is not as simple as replacing a light bulb.

Electric Art is all around us

Why did I dip into this odd exploration of commercial signs in town.   I had fun photographing the signs and processing the images, and I learned that companies work hard to make and keep their signage looking good and working well.   I also learned the power of electric signs. They are visually stunning and draw people to their businesses.

What about you, do you have signs that give you a lift when you see them?  Or perhaps there are signs that have the opposite effect. When considering art, and presentations, some simple electronics can really amplify your message.

I will be exploring adding art, light, and motion to my work, and I hope you will come back to join me.  

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