When driving along South First Street in Austin, Texas, people tend to slow to a crawl when they spot the weathered white building with a huge “Greetings from Austin” mural splashed across a side wall and a fire engine red neon arrow declaring, “This is It!” above the front door.
Other neon creations—including a flashing bathing beauty diving across the top of an eight-foot-wide rusty metal “Deep Eddy Swimming Pool” sign— serve as beacons to passers-by.
“If I do my job right, people think [one of my signs] is an actual antique, like something they found on a road trip,” says neon artist Todd Sanders, 46, owner of Roadhouse Relics studio and gallery.
The signs, many which have been featured in movies including Miss Congeniality, The Rookie, Spy Kids and The Tree of Life, and as backdrops for a recent Jimmy Kimmel Show, are new. But Sanders, who has been working in this “modern vintage” medium for over 22 years, takes great pains to make his neon creations look old.
“I make a sign exactly the way they were made in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Sanders, whose pre-pop art jobs include art supply salesman, motorcycle painter and antique auto builder. “But I take it one step further and weather it. I’ve earned a Ph.D. in rust.”
Sanders begins each piece with a hand-drawn sketch, finding inspiration from his collection of some 2,000 photographs of antique neon signage and murals collected during his cross- country travels. Next, he makes full-size patterns of his design, then sends it to fabricators who will bend the vacuum tubes and shape the metal parts before Sanders applies his finishing touch.
“There’s no machine that makes these things,” he says. “I call it crude charm.”
Sanders’ passion for preserving the art form, which began to dim in the 1950s with the popularity of plastic and fluorescent lights, sustained him through lean times before he developed a following. In the 1990s, the graphic design major lived in a vintage trailer without running water or electricity while working as an apprentice at a neon sign shop and later as a sign repairman.
Today, his artwork, which Sanders describes as rustic, garish and over-the- top, has been commissioned by celebrities including Johnny Depp and Willie Nelson, and also decorates the homes of collectors interested in art representing the American can-do spirit.
“My hope is that by crafting art meant to be enjoyed by generations to come, I might also inspire others to preserve those special elements of the past,” he says.