Hit the Lights

Photography by Kazufumi Shimoyashiki
Editing & Text by Tamio Ogasawara

Ever since the first neon sign lit up 100 years ago in Paris, neon lights have coloured and demarcated our city nights. Drawn in by the seductive light, young Japanese artist WAKU bends glass pipes with the utmost care, furthering the modest yet singular tradition of neon signage.

WAKU

Neon Sign Craftsman

Artist. Born in 1996 in Tokyo. While at university in 2017, he apprenticed at Shimada Neon and in 2018 moved to New York on his own. Honing his skills at Brooklyn Glass, he returned to Japan in 2019. That year, he held his first solo show Gowanus and has exhibited his work periodically ever since. Along with his art, WAKU also produces commercial work for stores and other customers.

The blue flame of the torch comes to life with a fearsome roar, burning from within. With a piece of tubing in his lips, WAKU uses his breath as a tool, bending the neon to match the form of the design. Making contact with the glass, the flame turns orange and illuminates his face. Around the time you might begin to wonder just how safe it is to touch the glass barehanded, he had bent the tube into a gorgeous shape.

WAKU’s new studio is in Edogawa, among the many smaller workshops of East Tokyo. The fact he’s only been working here for a few months, and the general absence of clutter, make his space feel more like a research laboratory than a studio. Artist WAKU is twenty-five years old. The world is full of practising artists, but those whose work involves heating and bending neon tubes to create works of light are perhaps few enough to count.

Before the Neon Sign, There Was Light

“It all began with this idea to make a neon sign for my room. But when I started looking into it, I found out that you had to heat and bend the tubes and make them vacuum tight, attach electrodes, and pipe in the gas. A lot of work, not something you can just sit down and do. As a first step, I looked for a place where I could watch and learn. Shimada Neon was kind enough to indulge me. When I saw the neon tubes scattered on the workbench, waiting to be assembled, I felt sucked in by the light surrounding them. I wanted to watch them work and learn these skills, so that I could work with neon too. That was just before I turned twenty years old.”

WAKU began visiting Shimada Neon once a week, trying his hand at the tools when the opportunity arose. But weekly sessions were not enough. He knew he would need more intensive training if he wanted to master these skills. And so he took a year off college and traveled to New York, where he studied at Brooklyn Glass.

“On my way to New York, I stopped by a neon workshop in San Francisco. I asked the sign maker if he knew somewhere I could practise intensively, and he told me about Brooklyn Glass. The studio is full of people working with all kinds of glass, not just neon. Once I was there, I started going five or six days a week, from eight in the morning until seven or so at night, to practice bending tubes. It was basics, basics, basics, all day long. With neon, it’s not about learning how, so much as gaining muscle memory, or building up a sense of how the glass is bent. Bending and piping in the gas are two entirely separate worlds. Brooklyn Glass rented torches by the day, so to cut expenses I kept breakfast simple, with a banana, a pastry and a so-so cup of coffee from a local spot. If I ever got confused, my friend Cody was there to help me, with three more years of experience. He brought me along to neon installs, so that I could see it done. He was like a brother to me. I learned so much from him. While I was training, I started getting contacted for signs. That was around the time UNIQLO asked me to create a sign for their San Francisco store.”

The work requests presented a new and exciting challenge, like solving a complicated puzzle. But the harder they were, the more fun WAKU had. The satisfaction of each finished project gave him steam for the next endeavor. He devoted five whole months to the sign project for UNIQLO, one of his first commissions. Interestingly enough, for his personal projects WAKU often draws inspiration from the natural world, at the opposite end of the spectrum from man-made neon signs.

WAKU makes a sketch and bends glass tubes to match the shapes. If tubes cross in three or more places, they must be bent using special tricks. A neon tube consists of a glass tube filled with gas. When voltage is applied, collision with the gas results in a glow discharge. The most common gasses used are argon, which glows blue, and neon, which glows red. To produce the desired colour and effect, sign makers can use coloured tubes consisting of coloured glass, fluorescent tubes that have a coloured powder coating, and clear tubes whose color is determined by the gas itself. His studio is not yet equipped to fill tubes, but he plans to get there in the future.

Ever since the first neon sign lit up 100 years ago in Paris, neon lights have coloured and demarcated our city nights. Drawn in by the seductive light, young Japanese artist WAKU bends glass pipes with the utmost care, furthering the modest yet singular tradition of neon signage.

WAKU

Neon Sign Craftsman

Artist. Born in 1996 in Tokyo. While at university in 2017, he apprenticed at Shimada Neon and in 2018 moved to New York on his own. Honing his skills at Brooklyn Glass, he returned to Japan in 2019. That year, he held his first solo show Gowanus and has exhibited his work periodically ever since. Along with his art, WAKU also produces commercial work for stores and other customers.

The blue flame of the torch comes to life with a fearsome roar, burning from within. With a piece of tubing in his lips, WAKU uses his breath as a tool, bending the neon to match the form of the design. Making contact with the glass, the flame turns orange and illuminates his face. Around the time you might begin to wonder just how safe it is to touch the glass barehanded, he had bent the tube into a gorgeous shape.

WAKU’s new studio is in Edogawa, among the many smaller workshops of East Tokyo. The fact he’s only been working here for a few months, and the general absence of clutter, make his space feel more like a research laboratory than a studio. Artist WAKU is twenty-five years old. The world is full of practising artists, but those whose work involves heating and bending neon tubes to create works of light are perhaps few enough to count.

Before the Neon Sign, There Was Light

“It all began with this idea to make a neon sign for my room. But when I started looking into it, I found out that you had to heat and bend the tubes and make them vacuum tight, attach electrodes, and pipe in the gas. A lot of work, not something you can just sit down and do. As a first step, I looked for a place where I could watch and learn. Shimada Neon was kind enough to indulge me. When I saw the neon tubes scattered on the workbench, waiting to be assembled, I felt sucked in by the light surrounding them. I wanted to watch them work and learn these skills, so that I could work with neon too. That was just before I turned twenty years old.”

WAKU began visiting Shimada Neon once a week, trying his hand at the tools when the opportunity arose. But weekly sessions were not enough. He knew he would need more intensive training if he wanted to master these skills. And so he took a year off college and traveled to New York, where he studied at Brooklyn Glass.

WAKU makes a sketch and bends glass tubes to match the shapes. If tubes cross in three or more places, they must be bent using special tricks. A neon tube consists of a glass tube filled with gas. When voltage is applied, collision with the gas results in a glow discharge. The most common gasses used are argon, which glows blue, and neon, which glows red. To produce the desired colour and effect, sign makers can use coloured tubes consisting of coloured glass, fluorescent tubes that have a coloured powder coating, and clear tubes whose color is determined by the gas itself. His studio is not yet equipped to fill tubes, but he plans to get there in the future.

“On my way to New York, I stopped by a neon workshop in San Francisco. I asked the sign maker if he knew somewhere I could practise intensively, and he told me about Brooklyn Glass. The studio is full of people working with all kinds of glass, not just neon. Once I was there, I started going five or six days a week, from eight in the morning until seven or so at night, to practice bending tubes. It was basics, basics, basics, all day long. With neon, it’s not about learning how, so much as gaining muscle memory, or building up a sense of how the glass is bent. Bending and piping in the gas are two entirely separate worlds. Brooklyn Glass rented torches by the day, so to cut expenses I kept breakfast simple, with a banana, a pastry and a so-so cup of coffee from a local spot. If I ever got confused, my friend Cody was there to help me, with three more years of experience. He brought me along to neon installs, so that I could see it done. He was like a brother to me. I learned so much from him. While I was training, I started getting contacted for signs. That was around the time UNIQLO asked me to create a sign for their San Francisco store.”

The work requests presented a new and exciting challenge, like solving a complicated puzzle. But the harder they were, the more fun WAKU had. The satisfaction of each finished project gave him steam for the next endeavor. He devoted five whole months to the sign project for UNIQLO, one of his first commissions. Interestingly enough, for his personal projects WAKU often draws inspiration from the natural world, at the opposite end of the spectrum from man-made neon signs.

In Love with the Immersive Power of Light.

“In my own work, I play with natural outlines and shapes from daily life, from a desire to explore what’s opposite the sensibility of neon signs. It’s not exactly Buddhist, but there’s something spiritually freeing about a burning light. My attraction to light goes back to the feeling of immersion I experienced at the local temple growing up, when we visited in the morning and stood before the altar. Before I see the words or message of a neon sign, what grabs me first is the distinctive presence of the light. It elicits a response that goes all the way back to childhood. My emotions settle out. I want to be near these signs and continue to create them. The power of neon signs, for me, is their ability to bring you back to this place of emotional purity.”

First demonstrated over 100 years ago at the Paris Motor Show, neon signs could soon be found in the windows of the barbershops of Paris. They have been a vital aspect of the cultural landscape ever since. Not so very long ago, cities at night were bathed in the spellbinding and sensual warmth of neon light, under which huge crowds gathered as if drawn in by the glow. One of the strikes against the cities of today is the profusion of impersonal LED signage and the ensuing loss of neon. But if young artists like WAKU continue to uphold the craft, perhaps that sense of warmth will return to the city night. Some might say it’s only neon, but what a wonder it is that a single sign can inspire so much passion.

Over the first-floor workspace is a second-floor gallery and office. WAKU owes his success to Masayoshi Shimada of Shimada Neon and to Kei Moriyama, a neon designer he met at the shop. Today, he turns to these mentors for advice and also to collaborate.

A work by WAKU installed by the first-floor entrance of UNIQLO Tokyo in Ginza. Over 100 letters pulsate to convey a message. In the old days of Ginza, you would see neon anytime you raised your eyes.

1. A work inspired by a visit to the traditional fishing village of Ine, Kyoto. 2020, W 1200 x H 400 x D 350 mm, 12 mm argon gas

2. Influenced by the stacking neon signs that once towered over major Japanese intersections, this was the first work WAKU exhibited at a show. 2019, W 1660 x H 1200 mm, 10 mm argon gas

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