the neon art of new york city
Meet the man shooting barber shops and beauty salons from the Bronx to Brooklyn for your new favorite nocturnal Instagram account, Neon NYC.
By day, Fernando Lions is a tattoo artist at Flyrite, one of Brooklyn's oldest shops. But when the sun goes down, he captures New York nightlife in one of the brightest, buzziest Instagram accounts around (and not by snapping kids in club looks posing outside Passion Lounge.) He's the man behind @neonnewyorkcity, a page dedicated to documenting the Big Apple's love for all things luminary, from nail shops to grocery stores, laundromats to psychics. We caught up with Fernando to find out where to spot the city's best signs --hint: it's not Times Square -- and why neon makes New Yorkers feel alive.
When did you first become interested in neon signs?
I went to art school in San Francisco and majored in sculpture. The department had a neon studio, so I was able to take some neon classes and ended up studying it for almost two years. I was just becoming familiar with the process and doing super basic stuff like bending. It was primarily focused on neon as a fine art, so it wasn't necessarily signage related, but that's what piqued my interest. I was also into graffiti for a long time, and the aesthetics of neon as well as tattooing all seem to kind of tie in with things that appeal to me. I'm really attracted to character imagery -- things you'd see on a graffiti wall, cartoon characters tattooed on an old man, or really simple graphic of a smiley face or Mickey Mouse. It's often that you see these kinds of character-based images in neon, not just lettering.
What motivated you to start the Instagram account?
When I was studying neon, I had been traveling around the country and taking photographs, so I already had a small collection of images. Because I was also writing graffiti at the time, I was constantly in the streets, so neon just became one more thing for me to pay attention to and seek out.
You also accept submissions from other neon lovers. What makes something --sorry-- shine?
If you scroll through the feed, many of the images capture a certain type of signage. A lot of times, I am looking for stuff that is more common, not necessarily the grandiose marques. I do appreciate those elaborate pieces, but I've always had a romanticized connection with the little guy-- the small business owner only able to afford that one sign that's really well thought out.
Definitely, there are so many good ones from bars, and nail places, and restaurants. Are there any more unexpected pieces you've noticed?
I've had moments walking through the West Village and seen a piece of neon in someone's apartment that they had purchased as an artwork and displayed in their window. Those are always kind of endearing. But in general, a lot of it's just pretty out there and in your face. Sometimes, you'll get a little surprise if you go into a bar and step into a back room and there's is a really unique sign for their dart board. But even if it is a nail shop or something common, it's cool to see the different colored glass and how they separate the color of the tips. The same design can be done a hundred different ways.
Why do you think New York loves neon so much?
I think it's a symbol of nightlife as well as a symbol of prosperity -- it shows that people are working hard to get attention for their business, some kind of hustler icon. You gotta do what you gotta do to make a buck in New York, and neon is one of those things that definitely helps. It makes areas feel alive and adds a lot of energy to the streets.
Is there any specific neighborhood in New York with an amazingly strong neon game?
I feel like I've seen every sign from Central Park to the tip of Manhattan at this point, but, the really wacky, super, crazy, weird ones are always in outer boroughs -- deep in Queens, south Brooklyn or even in the Bronx. These are where you find super unique signs that again, aren't really about artwork, but people trying to attract attention to their stores. There are pretty creative versions of classic signage out in the cuts, and I appreciate that the most.
How has Instagram shaped art or culture in general?
Instagram is the way of the world at the moment, but I don't know if it's necessarily healthy. Sometimes I feel it feeds into narcissism and brings out more toxic aspects of people, but I'm happy and proud to contribute in a positive way by using it to promote creativity. I think that's the best we all can make of it!
Text Emily Manning
Images via @neonnewyorkcity