On the Blink
Honolulu is full of amazing, historic neon. Some of it isn’t in such great shape anymore.
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Part of Bozo’s mystique was that neon bending had always been an arcane skill in Hawaii. In his day, he was one of only a few shapers on Oahu, and shapers in general weren’t eager to expand the number of people working in their field.
Monroe, who got into the sign business around the time Bozo was getting out, says he had to travel to the Mainland to learn the craft. “Nobody here would teach it,” he says. “The old-timers didn’t want to be bothered.”
Today, Monroe is the old-timer, one of three active benders on the island. He’s been in the small Kalihi shop for 12 years. The walls are lined with old neon beer signs he’s collected in his career, along with curlicue segments of neon tubing (“shop,” “deli,” the fronds and trunk of a palm tree in two separate pieces). Some of the neon he’s in the midst of repairing, some has been hanging there for years, waiting for the right customer to come along.
It’s like stepping into an earlier time. “Nothing’s changed,” Monroe says. “The glass is made the same way, the phosphor coating, the neon and argon gases. Even the bending technology is the same. If you look at photos of shops from the 1940s, it’s the same equipment—the crossfire torches, the ribbon burners.”
His shop table is full of scorch marks from superheated glass tubing, as are the large paper templates he uses to lay out a new sign. “It’s not for everybody,” he admits. “The hot glass burns and blisters your fingers, you get glass cuts, there are glass crumbs all over the place. But the craft has been good to me. It’s satisfying.”
There doesn’t seem to be any new local talent following in his footsteps, but Monroe’s not too worried about the future. “Neon is going to be around for a long time,” he says. “Restaurants, bars, theaters, they’re always going to want neon signs. There’s nothing else that can give you that look.”