Have you ever met a mad scientist? I have. His name is Galen Turner and he builds neon signs at his workshop in Hilltop.
OK, so he’s not really “mad” per se and he’s more of an artist than a scientist, but he’s about the closest thing to a mad scientist that you’ll ever find in real life. I mean, he’s got a Jacob’s ladder hooked up to a 20,000 volt bombarding transformer in his shop. Just to give you some context, modern electric chairs run around 2,500 volts. That’s some Frankenstein-level shit right there.
Galen is one of only a handful of neon artists still left in western Washington. There was a huge die out of neon signage around the end of the 20th century and a lot of the old masters took their secrets to the grave. That, combined with a government funded purge of Tacoma’s classic neon signs, pushed the art of neon to the brink of extinction. Fortunately though, enough people still respect the craft to seek out his expertise. On top of that, there’s no such thing as a neon sign factory, or at least not an automated one. “Every neon sign is made by hand.”, Galen told me at his shop, “Even if you send away to China to get a cheap one, there’s still some guy with a glass tube and a torch making it by hand.”
The actual process of making a neon sign is immensely complex. Even if you start with pre-made glass tube stock, you still have to heat and bend the glass by hand, coat the inside with the right type of fluorescent powder, fill it with the right kind of gas (argon, neon, krypton, etc.), add the mercury, and attach electrodes, all without cutting, burning, or electrocuting yourself. And that’s assuming you have the skill to design and build the structural part of the sign too. It’s a unique mix of creativity and old fashioned blue-collar craft.
Of all the amazing glowing creatures born in Galen’s shop, the most impressive one has to be the 12-foot steel and aluminum Bike Jump portal. Complete with 100 marquee-style chasing light bulbs and 200 feet of multicolored neon tubing, it is a sight to behold. If you’ve never heard of Bike Jump, you can read more about it here. If you saw it this year, you can also donate to the cost of building this thing and get yourself some cool Bike Jump goodies. The event poster gives an accurate description:
“GAYTRON THE IMPLODER, THE NEON GLADIATOR-DESTROYER OF WORLDS
IN COLLABORATION WITH 2ND CYCLE: A STUNT OF LIFE DEFYING RADITUDE
A BIKE JUMP THROUGH 90,140 VOLTS OF RARE STIMULATED GASSES
AND 200 FEET OF NEON. IN DADA WE TRUST.”
The actual culmination of the event lasts for all of a few seconds as Galen straps screeching fireworks to his butt and rides his bike off a three-inch ramp, smashing through all the neon tubing. It’s an unbelievable amount of build up for something so quick but it’s absolutely worth it. As Galen puts it, “There’s just something about having a junky and a lawyer standing arm-in-arm watching a jackass for like 20 minutes and they don’t even know what happened but they know they liked it.”
In the past, this all usually happens in the summer. This year’s Bike Jump, however, took place in October on a day with 100% chance of rain. A few days before the event I asked Galen what happens with a tower of electricity when it’s raining and he replied simply, “Make sure you’re grounded and build your shit well.” Sound advice for neon signs as well as life in general.