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How to Make a Neon Sign

We partnered with Timberland to find New York City’s painted ads of yesteryear and learn about the art of neon signmaking.

Shop the styles in this video: the Women’s Glancy and Carleton and the Men’s Branston and West Haven.

City life wouldn’t be complete without the splashes of color provided by commercial art, from flashing lights to popping signage. Even so, the cityscape of today bears little resemblance to that of forty or fifty years ago. Walking through downtown Manhattan, the eyes of most modern visitors will be caught by sprawling LED displays and multi-storied billboards. This fall, Atlas Obscura set out with footwear, clothing, and accessories company Timberland to be delighted by older, classic displays in paint and neon.

We began our day scouring SoHo and Tribeca for the city’s so-called “ghost signs.” Our guide was historian and photographer Frank Jump, who has been documenting these unique glimpses into the past for more than twenty years.  

A ghost sign in New York City advertises a neighborhood pharmacy.

Ghost signs are fading, painted advertisements, often on the sides of buildings, and often painted decades ago. To find them, you have to know where to look, remember to look up, and be sure to look carefully. Frank walked us through the neighborhood, pointing down alleyways, above parking lots, and between crowded buildings to show us pieces of the past that have snuck into the present.

A fading sign for boxes covers the side of this building in SoHo.

Pointing out the details of an advertisement above a crowded intersection. 

After lunch, we went to Brooklyn Glass in Gowanus for a neon signmaking workshop with resident expert David Ablon. From bending and shaping the glass to filling the finished form with a combination of gas and mercury, David walked us through making our own creations in neon, a medium he fittingly called a “misfit technology.”

David shows off a participant’s first bend.

Neon signs, although a newer form of signage than painted murals, are their own kind of classic. Before LED displays took over urban centers, it was neon that most fully embodied the excitement of city life. And although today’s city dwellers see less neon than they would have in the 1970s, neon is famously long lasting. Like the ghost signs, these creations will endure.

 Our finished creations, glowing.

 One more classic.

This event is part of Timberland’s exploration of the #ModernTrail, which focuses on urban art, culture, and new experiences in cities nationwide. You can watch a recap of our day in New York City above.

This post is sponsored by Timberland. Share your everyday adventure on the #ModernTrail here.