Art

This Toronto photographer takes beautiful, buzzing shots of North America’s neon signs

This Toronto photographer takes beautiful, buzzing shots of North America’s neon signs

Tanja Tiziana fell in love with neon signs in the mid-2000s. She was driving down Route 66 on a road trip from Toronto to San Diego with her best friend. “It was the first time I got to see these small towns, and they had all this great signage from 50 to 60 years ago,” the Toronto-based photographer says. “Initially, I was just drawn to the cool retro aspect of it, but then, as I went into some of these places and talked to the owners, I started to learn more about the how the signs were made and what it took to restore them. I found a whole new appreciation for it.”

The road trip sparked a decade-long passion project. She’s road tripped across North America, snapping photos of the continent’s brightly coloured relics in neon epicentres like Vancouver, New York and Las Vegas, as well as sleepy states like Kansas and Missouri. Her vivid portraits capture the signs in their original, eccentric environments—standing like beacons along Las Vegas’s Freemont Street, like skeletons of a bygone era in the New Mexico desert, like shiny ornaments atop grey New York City buildings or like behemoths hovering over Portland sidewalks. “Different places have their own flavour,” Tiziana says. “In California, there are a lot of great ’50s and ’60s styles with groovy fonts, diamonds and stars. There are palm trees and blues, teals and greens. New York and Toronto signs are a bit older, more ’40s and Art Deco. And then there’s Las Vegas, which is a whole thing on its own.”

Tiziana has complied hundreds of her photos in a new glossy coffee table book, Buzzing Lights: The Fading Neon Landscape of North America. We asked her to share the stories behind nine of her photos.

Toronto
Massey Hall

“My favourite neon sign in Toronto is Massey Hall’s. It’s so simple, not super flashy like the El Mocambo’s. When you arrive to see a show there, all that red light just drapes over everybody on the sidewalk. That sign is like a feeling. It creates an atmosphere outside Massey Hall. Can you imagine it being replaced with an LCD?”

 

Seattle
Car Wash

“I stumbled upon this sign when I visited my best friend in Vancouver and road tripped down to Seattle, Portland and California. It’s kind of like the Sam the Record Man sign—you can see a picture of it but when you’re in front of it, you realize it’s, like, two storeys high. Half of the sign is neon and half of it is syncopated bulbs, like the Honest Ed’s sign. Seattle is a city that’s very modern, like Toronto. You’ve got a lot of cold concrete, and then you turn the corner and there’s this giant pink elephant smiling at you with little mice at its feet. It’s so fun and whimsical.”

 

Las Vegas
Chapel of the Bells

“This is one of Vegas’ original, quintessential chapels. I shot it the first time I went to Vegas in 2005. It’s this very cute 1950s building that’s survived the flashy Vegas that’s taken over. Almost of these chapels are gone now.”

 

Portland
The Palms Motor Hotel

“Portland is in love with this sign. It’s double or triple the height of the actual motel. The first time I saw it, it had some crackling paint and was getting a little worn down, but it’s now been fully restored and brought back to its original glory.”

 

Columbia, Missouri
Diner

“Columbia is a college town. I was driving through it on my way back to Canada, and we pulled into the parking lot because I loved this sign. It’s probably around seven feet tall. The diner was one of those small one-storey buildings, so it was cool to have this sign on top. It was totally working that 1950s, old-school American diner experience.”

 

Burlington, Kansas
Plaza Theatre

“This is one of my favourite signs. I really love Art Deco and ’30s and ’40s style. This theatre was like a mirage in the desert because we were driving through rural Kansas, and there was nothing: brown earth, grey sky, farmland. We decided to drive though this town called Burlington, and we saw this theatre with a great neon of a guitar. They have since re-opened the theatre as the Burlington Opry, but they’ve covered all the Plaza signs with some garbage plastic cardboard sign. It’s so ugly.”

 

Vancouver
Save on Meats

“When I first visited Save on Meats, it was still a butcher shop. It was really run down, but it had this cute flying pig. Since then, a team has restored it and they’ve opened up a diner and totally brought it back to life. Vancouver used to be the neon capital of North America. People had neons as their house numbers. It was wild. It got out of control in the 1960s, and people thought neon signs were gaudy and ugly, and that the streets needed to be cleaned up. A bylaw was passed. Almost all of them are gone now.”

 

Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Sahara

“This building is totally dilapidated, just waiting to be torn down. It’s in the desert of New Mexico, along Route 66, and there isn’t really anything happening around there. Some Route 66 places have taken hold of the 66 legacy, made it a tourist destination and really restored their signs—there’s a town 10 miles from this place with an oldies radio station and a row of motels—but others kind of disappeared.”

 

New York City
Waverly Restaurant

“This is one of my favourite signs in New York. I’ve photographed it a million and one ways. In Manhattan, there are few true diners left like this one. Neon went through this period in the ’70s and ’80s where it became associated with porn shops, peep shows and seedy motels. I think now it’s having this kind of renaissance, where nice restaurants are putting up these little neons in their windows and artists are incorporating it into their galleries and indoor spaces. People are falling love all over again.”