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Under the Neon Lights

Ottobre 2009
Costruire insegne al neon è una vera e propria arte, che risale all’800. Gli specialisti sono pochissimi: Andy Doig di Brighton è uno di loro, e ci svela i segreti del mestiere.

di Julian Earwaker

File audio:

Artist Andy Doig
Artist Andy Doig


Created from glass tubes and rare gases, neon lighting is a colourful and instantly recognisable part of modern-day advertising. Just think of downtown Tokyo, or Times Square in New York, or even “The Strip” in Las Vegas – all of them alive with huge neon displays.
Brighton, on the south coast of England, isn’t quite so full of neon, but it still provides plenty of work for Andy Doig, 44, who has been designing, building and repairing neon signs for more than 20 years. He runs his business, Fishtail Neon, from a small workshop, which is full of neon, old and new, near the city’s seafront.
Doig first fell in love with what he calls the “magic in science” of neon on a visit to the United States (specifically, Chicago) in 1992. When he returned to the UK, he enrolled on the only neon trade training course in the country. He admits that it took him many years of hard work to master the skills needed to “blow” glass (which is actually bent over an extremely hot flame) into the intricate shapes used in neon signs.


The first commercial sign is believed to have been produced by Georges Claude in 1912, for a barber’s shop in Paris. In 1923 Claude started exporting signs to the United States, where they were an instant success in outdoor advertising. There’s definitely something warm about the quality and colour of neon light. Visibly glowing (even in daylight), it’s easy to understand why people described the first neon signs as “liquid fire.”
All of today’s neon dates back to the experiments of German scientist Heinrich Geissler in the mid-19th century. His famous “Geissler tube” was sealed and filled with vapour to produce luminous electrical discharge.
The signs made today by Andy Doig still use the same principle. So who buys his work? Who are his usual customers? “I don’t have usual customers. They’re all unusual!” he says, laughing. “The work comes from everywhere: theatre, bars, restaurants, private individuals, art pieces, commercial lighting companies. Neon is very specialist work.”  

the brightest man in brighton

language level b2 (upper intermediate)

Speaker: Rachel Roberts (Standard British accent)

Andy Doig creates those beautiful neon signs that you see at the entrances of shops and restaurants. He does this in his “Fishtail Neon” workshop in the English seaside resort of Brighton. It is a specialised craft that mainly involves glass-bending, or glass-blowing, and there are fewer than 100 neon sign manufacturers in the UK. Andy Doig also likes to create non-commercial neon signs but, as he explained, art and business don’t always go hand in hand: 

Andy Doig (Standard English accent):

Getting the books to balance is a nightmare! So that’s the same with any small business. This year I’ve done lots of stuff, on an artistic side of things, so... and art, to me... I’m coming to terms with what art is, and art is making something that you want to make, and are prepared to put time and money into something that you may never sell. And that’s kind of (a) weird feeling for me, coming again from (the) industry side. So I’ve done a lot of that, but now I’m left with a ton of stock and no money! And it’s like, “Oh my God!” It’s scary, but, equally, I’m happy to say that I’ve made some stuff that I’m really proud of and I really like.


And so what advice did he have for someone planning a career in this unusual profession?

Andy Doig:

I’d say, “Right, well start glass- blowing, get training.” And the person you’re training with will tell you whether you’ve got it or not, after three weeks, four weeks. And quite often it’s not what you think. Quite often you think, “Oh, well I can bend that, that’s OK.” That’s not it. It’s up here, it’s in your head. And I know who will go on to do it and who’s just doing it ‘cause they think it’s a cool job to do. It’s little things. It’s the subtle things that come across from the glass blower, the trainee, that tell you whether they’re going to do it or not. It’s obsessiveness: you can’t fake obsessiveness.

If You Go...

You can visit Andy Doig’s Fishtail Neon workshop at 282 Madeira Arches, Brighton, tel. +44 (0)1273 694662. www.fishtailneon.com

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workshop - laboratorio.

seafront - lungomare

to master the skills - per imparare l’arte.

bent - piegato.

outdoor advertising - pubblicità per esterni.

glowing - splendente.

sealed - sigillato.



craft - arte.

glass-bending - curvatura del vetro.

getting the books to balance is a nightmare - far quadrare i conti è un incubo.

a weird feeling - una sensazione strana.

a ton of stock - un sacco di cose in magazzino.

it’s scary - fa paura.

will tell you whether you’ve got it or not - ti dirà se hai la stoffa o no.

it’s the subtle things that come across from the... trainee - sono le sfumature che vengono trasmesse dall’apprendista.

fake - fingere.