WLIW Arts Beat


Krypton Neon Gives Signs Their Spark

Combining art with science can lead to endless possibilities. New York neon artist Kenny Greenberg takes us inside his studio for look at what gives signs their spark.

AIRED: September 06, 2018 | 0:05:07


>> Yeah, I was definitely

looking for a combination of

art and science.

I don't know where I thought

neon came from, but you don't

think about it.

You know, you don't look at a

lightbulb and think about how

it's made, and when I learned

that every single neon sign that

you've ever seen anywhere was

made by hand, that just, uh,

really attracted me.

I think also what I loved then

and still love about it is it's

actually a very old technology.


What we do today is not that

much different from what was

going on, uh, 100 years ago.

We're taking matter and

making light.

We're -- We're turning -- We're

turning matter into -- into

light energy.

And, uh, we do that every day

kind of casually, uh, but it's

kind of really thrilling.


I think my original ambition was

pure art.

And then I discovered I had

to make a living.

A lot of my early work was with

artists, were collaborations

with artists.

And even in -- in the more

commercial field, I remember

doing things where if a

restaurant owner couldn't afford

the sign that he wanted, I would

give him a discount if I could

design the sign.


The first production I worked on

was the -- the original

Broadway "Miss Saigon."

There was a period where, on

average, I was doing 12 a year.

We kind of have a reputation for

getting the job done.

You know, the joke is, you know,

sometimes I'll get called by

one of the scenery shops, and

they go, "We've got a lot of

time for this one this time.

We've got two weeks," you know?

I'll basically trace over --

over the design, uh, on -- on

the computer and, you know, I do

what I call neonizing it, and

then that becomes a template.

We actually, we reverse it,

because neon is bent so that its

face is always flat, so we're

bending it from behind.

All right, what should we make?

We seal it, but we allow, um,

uh, a port to come out of it.

It's gonna kind of collapse a

little bit.

So when I'm blowing it, it's

blowing it out to preserve the



Matching it to the pattern.

Just blocking it down

a little bit.



We can pull all of the air out

of it, and we actually heat it

while we're doing that so that

we really make sure we get all

of the matter out of it, and we

try to achieve as close to

an outer space emptiness as --

as possible inside the tube.

Turning off the vacuum pump.

Engaging the manometer.

And then we, uh, fill it with

a rare gas.

The color range is not that

much, uh, in the gases


And, in fact, in most neon that

you're seeing, we're really only

using one of two gases.

And, uh, one gas is giving us

a red light, and the other gas

is giving us a blue light that

has, um, a lot of ultraviolet

in it, as well.

That's air lighting up.

Well, the gases themselves,

there's really only, um, four or

five rare gases.

But if the tubes are coated with

phosphors that react to the

ultraviolet light, we start to

see additional colors coming

from the ultraviolet light

affecting the phosphors.

And there are phosphors that

are green, that are purple, that

are, you know, all different


And at the same time, some of

the blue light filters through

the phosphor, because it's

a thin coating, so you get a mix

of -- of whatever the phosphor

is putting out, and the visible

blue light.

Add to that, you can also

actually have different colored

glass, so the glass can kind of

intensify the colors.

I-I think at last count, I

usually use a number of...

There's probably about 200 to

300 colors that are, uh,


If we're working with, uh,

hand-blown glass, you can get

dimensional with it, as well.

I mean, I -- I think the

variations are kind of endless.


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