In March 2012, I was in Las Vegas. It was my first time abroad and yet I wasn’t that excited. I remained relatively calm on the flight. I kind of grew up with American culture like sports, movies, and music in my childhood. Looking back, I was pretty biased about my view of foreign countries.
Until the last day, I enjoyed America in its own way. amazed by the size of sandwiches portion in Subway, felt extremely hot in Grand Canyon, impressed by the water fountain show at Bellagio, and confused by tipping culture. Yes typical tourist, beta move. I’ve bought only a slack to enter the casino. That’s all that I’ve bought except for food and drinks because I didn’t have much money. I didn’t have any particular reasons to visit Las Vegas. I didn’t really care where to go if it’s foreign and my friends wanted to visit Las Vegas, that was it.
However, I did a hotel hopping on the last day, and turned out it was one of the most memorable experiences in my teen. As you know, Las Vegas is known for its unique hotels and resorts. A friend of mine had a guidebook and we took a taxi to get around the hotels in one night. We enjoyed just walking around and taking pictures without buying anything.
When I got back to Japan, I thought about why I had such a great time that night. I’ve started researching the ecology of Las Vegas and I came across the word “neon”. Neon is neon, a chemical element you can see on the periodic table, but it’s also called a neon sign, which is a sign made of glass tubes filled with neon gas. I’ve often heard the term “neon color”, but apparently it’s a different thing. Of course, it was fun simply because I was in a country where they have a different culture, but it was the neon signs that created the atmosphere in Las Vegas, that’s what I thought. That’s when I became interested in neon signs. Somehow it reminds of me the excitement of my first exposure to be in red light district in my hometown when I was junior high. I had a same feeling both being in Las Vagas and flying on the bicycle in a red light district with my lads. Once I became aware of the existence of neon, the world was full of it. I began to see neon lights everywhere, on the streets, in movies, in music videos, in books, and in many other places.
I was in my senior year at university. I was taking a leave of absence without clear goals. At one point, I decided to try making neon lights. At first, I went to Akihabara, an electric town in Tokyo, bought some LED wires, and played with them. But it wasn’t the neon that I knew. A friend told me to go to a neon shop. He was a very cultured guy and suggested I read Hiroshi Morinaga’s book about “Dropout”, which is now kinda like a bible of my life. I looked up neon shops on the Internet and visited one of them.
Thankfully, I’ve got welcomed into the studio. He is one of those legend neon benders in Japan and turned out he is a very cool guy. He had Bob Marley and Naughty By Nature’s neon lights, which was fascinating for me. We talked about many things, but he told me that “you can’t make a living off of neon lights”. It had only been a few years since the massive earthquake happened in Japan, especially on the eastern side of the coast. This was right after the blue diode had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Due to the nuclear accident, there was an atmosphere of self-restraint and conservation of electricity saving in Japan, especially among companies. Light saving was a big thing after the disaster, and still. He was working hard with a side job to make a living. I thought, “Well, then, I’ll just go to America”. I worked as a construction worker to make money. I shared in a 6-tatami room with a friend in Sancha to make ends meet. My friend was working as a hairdresser in Shibuya, so he came home late whilst I’m sleeping early. We were both exhausted every day. Sometimes we had little fights.
I made a good amount of money in three months. I went online and looked up neon schools. Flight cost, house cost, entrance fee, living expenses apparently I didn’t have enough money. I learned that studying abroad is way more expensive than I thought it is. One day I had a drink with a local friend and we got into a minor dispute about lives. It seemed that the person through my friend’s eyes and the person I envisioned were different. It was around the time that my landlord found out we were sharing one room, which is illegal. Every day a swarm of ants poured into our room from the next door. Even if I borrowed more money to go to America to learn how to make neon lights, making neon lights would not pay for itself in Japan today. I and my friend were like we need money. I knew I had to get out of this life of earning money.
At the time, around 2014, there was a lot of talk about young founders making a lot of money by creating web services like Twitter and Facebook. On the other side, Team Labo, Rhizomatiks, and the three AR brothers were appearing in the Japanese media as creative digital art studios. Obviously, it’s all about what is called programming. Since I was good at computers, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to a job and I started working as a part-time programmer. I borrowed money and rented an apartment in the walking distance of the startup I worked with. Every day from waking up in the morning until I went to bed, I faced the computer. I gained a lot of weight, but the more I did, the more I could do. I also tried to do interactive art and VJ in the clubs, but it didn’t feel right for me. Our future got diverged in the startup with the founder. As time went by, I went from a part-time job to a freelance job. I had more money to spare. I decided to go abroad. I had been wanting to travel ever since I read Hiroshi Morinaga’s book, that bible I’ve mentioned, and it was before I turned 25. Neon had almost disappeared from my mind.
After I went abroad, my passion for my work gradually faded. I learned to live my life with a different perspective I had. I’m not sure whether or not it’s because I was living abroad. I’ll never know. After about two years of living like that, I came to the point that I realized I’m now used to live abroad. Even when I went to a new city, I felt less of it than I did in the beginning. When I looked at my camera, my eyes fell on the neon photos I had taken. I tried to take pictures in the cities I visited, but I found myself taking only neon photos. I love neon lights, I thought. When I went to Hong Kong, for the first time in my life, I made friends who understand the aesthetic of neon. I felt like we could talk about it all night. Apparently, they were holding a neon tour in Hong Kong, and I was able to join in. There were so many neon lights around Tsim Sha Tsui that even ordinary tourists were taking pictures. There were a lot of neon works in art galleries. I’ve always been interested in art, but thanks to my trip, I’ve become even more interested in art. I didn’t expect to see neon work in an art gallery, to be honest. I thought, “maybe I can give it a shot”. For someone like me who had only known commercial neon lighting, this seemed like a new idea. Of course, neon is an anachronism in this digital age. The following year, I went back to Hong Kong for another visit. A famous German documentary crew, Arte, was making the rounds to interview my HK friend cause she hosts a vintage neon tour in HK. Somehow I’ve joined them. They also interviewed me like a neon bohemian. Surely no one had seen as much of the world’s neon lights as I had in Asia, I’d say. I reckon it’s not bad.
When I was briefly back in Japan, I paid another visit to a neon craftsman I had visited in the past. He told me that, thanks to Instagram, there was no stopping the orders for neon lights. Times change quickly, I thought. I did a quick search and found that the web and Instagram were full of people making neon lights. Maybe they were there from the beginning, but it had already become a complete boom. Sooner or later there will be Youtubers and such. I thought it might be a bit late to start now. But there was already something in me that I wanted to express in neon lights. I decided not to do commercial neon, but to do art. This time, I didn’t waver.