Illuminating the Art of Neon

Con­tin­u­ing my hol­i­day week­end of activ­i­ties, I went on anoth­er Atlas Obscu­ra tour to Flek­tro Stu­dios. Sandi was the offi­cial Field agent, but Erin was there, and our host was Michael Flecht­ner.

Flektro Studio

Among Michael’s many accom­plish­ments, he designed the “Cel­e­brate Neon” Forever stamp for the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice.

Celebrate Neon

He is also on the board of trustees for the Muse­um of Neon Art and earned the J. Paul Get­ty Trust Fund Fel­low­ship for the Visu­al Arts. He is even one of the first Amer­i­cans to vis­it Cuba for the Havana Light project.

Michael is one of the few neon artists who cre­ates three-dimen­sion­al pieces. It is a bit hard to see from this angle, but the red­dish fish is a ham­mer­head shark.

3D Shark

3D Fish

He also enjoys incor­po­rat­ing word­play into his work. This first piece is called “Budapest” and the sec­ond one is called “Moolah.”

Budapest

Moolah

While we were there, he walked us through the entire process of mak­ing a neon light. In hon­or of Atlas Obscu­ra, Michael made a sim­ple AO. First, he start­ed with one long tube for the A, cut it down to size, and heat­ed up small sec­tions to get the tight bends. Then he got a sec­ond tube for the O and heat­ed up about half at a time to get the long curves. The tricky part was clos­ing the gap on the O with­out hav­ing the ends hit each oth­er. The last step of the shap­ing was to join the two let­ters togeth­er and close the out­side ends with elec­trodes. On one end, he put a small bulb in the glass to trap a tiny bit of mer­cury.

We learned that neon lights get their col­or in three ways. The first is the gas used — each of the noble gas­es can be used, and they each have a dif­fer­ent nat­u­ral col­or asso­ci­at­ed. The sec­ond is the glass tube — phos­pho­rus coat­ings on the inside of the tubes can con­vert the UV por­tion of the light emit­ted by the gas to a vis­i­ble wave­length. And the final method is mer­cury, which will turn any gas to blue when it is vapor­ized and sus­pend­ed in the gas.

After fin­ish­ing at the bend­ing sta­tion, he took it over to the gas sta­tion. First he blasts extreme­ly high cur­rents through the tubes while they still have just nor­mal air. In the stu­dio, Michael actu­al­ly has a trans­former nor­mal­ly seen on pow­er lines for this pur­pose. This burns up all the water vapor and oth­er impu­ri­ties in the tube, which leads to a longer life for the neon. Michael told us about the neon signs at Clifton’s Cafe­te­ria, which have prob­a­bly been run­ning 247 for over 80 years with­out repair because they were well made. Then he fills it up with the gas of choice and runs “nor­mal” cur­rent through, and works the mer­cury from the trap through­out the tube. That is the stage we are in this pho­to.

Atlas Obscura demo

Once the mer­cury is even­ly spread, he gives it a few min­utes of steady pow­er to get an idea of what the final col­or will be. It took him about 45 min­utes to go from start to fin­ish. Michael tells us that mass-pro­duc­ers of signs, like for beer com­pa­nies to put in bars, are much faster than him because the shap­ing por­tion is stamped, not free­hand.

Here are a cou­ple of videos of pieces I real­ly liked, for obvi­ous rea­sons.

And my absolute favorite shot from the entire tour, me, hold­ing a neon cam­era and drop­ping an F-bomb.

Camera and F-Bomb

And as a bonus, here is a piece of Michael’s in the wild.

Called “Yucky!”, it can be found at Sweet! Hol­ly­wood.

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