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Cities all over the world have had a long-standing love affair with neon for decades. Really taking off during the roaring twenties and shining a beacon of light during the depressing 1930’s- neon has always appealed to city dwellers and even now conjures feelings of nostalgia and loyalty.
From Las Vegas to Piccadilly Circus, from Times Square to Shanghai; neon really took the world by storm and even now, iconic pieces of neon lights and street art still adorn major cities and spark conversation and even protest all over the world.
The first neon signs were invented in Paris in 1910 by Georges Claude, a French engineer and entrepreneur. The public was impressed with the two 12 meter long red neon signs he exhibited at the Paris Motor Show and soon Paris was adorned with neon signs. The lights were extinguished during the war but as soon as the lights of Europe were turned back on, neon sprung back into fashion in a big way.
In 1923, Georges Claude sold a pair of his neon signs to Earl C Anthony’s Packard dealership in Los Angeles and the spawn of neon in America began. Each sign a work of art – hand crafted and conjured using different gasses to elicit different colours. Neon signs became a must have for anyone wanting to advertise their business. An array of famous adverts was born over the coming years, such as the Kentile Floors sign which was the subject of recent controversy in New York. Despite a reputation for using asbestos, litigation from customers who claimed the tiles caused cancer and the business itself ceasing trading in the 90’s; residents successfully campaigned to preserve the neon classic sign during recent renovations of Brooklyn’s Ninth Street.
There was a period where the popularity and the reputation of the neon street sign took a more negative turn. Roughly between 1960 and the 1990’s neon signs became associated with run-down areas and seedy establishments. As technology advanced and city areas with money and resources looked to turn to LED and light displays, neon street art got left behind somewhat.
This undesirable reputation didn’t stop pop culture embracing the vivacity of neon street art, however. Neon lights played a huge part in Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Bladerunner which was a visual masterpiece. Pop and rock music has always embraced neon with John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album cover in 1975 featuring neon street art in all its glory and more recently Blur’s Magic Whip album cover.
Neon street art is now nostalgic and reminiscent of times gone by. It is still well loved and treasured today which has been exemplified by the on-going battle to keep the classic neon Lucozade sign on the road to Heathrow Airport. The sign was installed in 1954 and was threatened 10 years ago when the building it was on was demolished. The sign was saved after a 6-year campaign by local residents but is now under threat again as company bosses want to upgrade to an LED display. Only time will tell whether the classic neon sign will survive.
Despite the neon’s advanced years and higher costs; its place in the heart of residents all over the world is well and truly cemented.