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.
Among Michael’s many accomplishments, he designed the “Celebrate Neon” Forever stamp for the United States Postal Service.
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.
He also enjoys incorporating wordplay into his work. This first piece is called “Budapest” and the second one is called “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 24⁄7 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.
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.
And as a bonus, here is a piece of Michael’s in the wild.
Called “Yucky!”, it can be found at Sweet! Hollywood.