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Rocket Neon

Published about 1 month ago • 7 min read

Helllooo! Did you know Boise is home to one of the last neon artists in the country?! This story is so fun. It was written by Julie Sarasqueta and you can listen to me read it on the podcast. Enjoy!


In partnership with Lost Grove Brewing

Shade City Brewfest is this weekend!

Grab your best buds & babes and head out to the Idaho Botanical Gardens for ​Shade City Brewfest​. It’s a two-day, 70s themed, sustainability-focused, all-you-can-drink beer celebration happening this weekend April 19-20, 2024.

Here’s what you can look forward to:

  • Boogie with 20 different bands throughout the garden
  • Taste beers 40+ beers & ciders from the PNW
  • Grub on local food vendors
  • See some of the best sustainability practices put into action

From composting food waste to partnering with Lime scooters and bikes to minimize carbon footprint, Shade City is all about creating a fun experience that takes care of our environment. Last year, Shade City generated only 10 trash bags total over the two-day event with thousands of people there. That’s amazing! Bring your fave cup (any kind of cup), get your bike tuned up, and dust off those bell bottoms because it’s time to get groovy, baby! ​

Get your tickets to Shade City Brewfest this weekend, April 19-20.​


Rocket Neon

By Julie Sarasqueta

In his shop, located in the shadow of multi-story new apartment buildings, Wil Kirkman works on an anachronism. As vehicles blow past on Myrtle, just steps outside the door, Kirkman — wearing headphones playing an audiobook — painstakingly fills bent glass tubes with an inert gas. Eventually, with a flick of a switch, this glass will come to life as a neon sign.

Kirkman is one of the last neon artists in the United States. Nearly 100 years ago, neon was a huge business. Now, by Kirkman’s estimate, there are only 400 to 600 people who practice the craft nationwide. His shop, Rocket Neon, keeps the tradition alive; not just here in Boise, but throughout the state. On the day I visited, Kirkman was working on a brand-new sign for a local ice cream company. A nearby table held a piece of the iconic neon sign from the Turf Club in Twin Falls (my fellow Magic Valley folks are picturing it now), which Kirkman is repairing.

“If someone who was working in a neon shop in 1930 came in here, they would look around and recognize everything,” he says.

Peak Neon

Neon is inextricably linked to the 20th century. The element neon was first isolated by English chemists right before the turn of the century, in 1898. Georges Claude, a French engineer, filed the first patent for a neon sign in 1902. By 1910, he was showcasing the first large-format neon light at the Paris Motor Show — a new form of lighting illuminating a new form of transportation.

Given the early connection between neon and cars, it’s probably no surprise that the first neon sign in the United States was made for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. The showroom is long gone, but the sign still remains at the apartment complex that took its place. Neon climbed in popularity through the ’20s and ’30s, just as cars made it more necessary for businesses to clearly capture attention as drivers went zooming by.

“In the 1930s, neon was seen as this new kind of sci-fi, futuristic way of lighting the world,” Kirkman says. “Then, after World War II, it became associated with bars and dens of iniquity. Part of that was reflected in film noir, in the dark-light contrast.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Kirkman says, a lot of cities passed ordinances banning neon. By the 1980s it was enjoying a brief resurgence.

“And that brings us to now,” Kirkman says, “when it’s just a little side note in history.”

I’m old enough to recall when neon was everywhere. It displayed the names of my favorite restaurants. It beckoned highway travelers to hotels. When I went to college, my most frequented watering holes seemed to be lit exclusively by old neon Coors and Budweiser signs, their scrolling calligraphy and fading waterfalls hemmed with perpetual, pure light.

The crispness of the light is what sets neon apart from its most recent replacement, LEDs. Many of the “neon” signs you see today are actually made with LEDs instead of neon gas. And on paper, LED lighting is definitely the more practical choice.

But neon’s fallibility is part of what makes it so appealing. It’s fragile. Its creation requires a specialized process. LED neon can’t match traditional neon’s brightness and color intensity, though, and an artist like Kirkman has more creative flexibility in how he forms the glass, which means more customization possibilities. And the color wheel for neon is still much, much broader than other options.

Kirkman shrugs off commonly touted LED advantages like longevity, too, nodding toward neon in the shape of a clothes hanger. “Those hangers have been on for 20-plus years, barring power outages,” he says. “They were remodeling a restaurant in L.A. — this was maybe 10 years ago — and took down a panel. Behind it were some neon backlighting pieces that had been on for 70 years and no one knew they were there. They had just covered it over.”

Because a neon sign can keep humming along year after year, and because they are increasingly treasured examples of commercial art, Kirkman will always have neon restoration gigs. In fact, he’s become the go-to guy for neon restoration throughout the state. I ask if there were any old neon signs in town he’s been itching to work on; nah, he says. “I got my hands on all of that stuff already,” he says. He sometimes rescues old neon signs from trash piles and brings them to the shop.


Sponsored by City of Boise

PSA for all the scooter riders!

The City of Boise is launching a new campaign called Scoot Over. It’s an initiative geared towards creating better etiquette with e-scooters in Boise.

You know the Lime scooters, I’m sure you’ve seen them all around town. They’re SO fun to ride and get you places quickly – but they really are everywhere, and they can easily get in the way of bikers, pedestrians and those who need more accessibility than others.

Right now is prime time scooter season, and it’s super important to keep our roads, sidewalks, and our beloved greenbelt safe for everyone. That means riding scooters in the direction of traffic, using bike lanes when possible, and being mindful of cars and pedestrians. Also be sure to keep an eye out around BSU and downtown for mandatory parking zones and high traffic around you!


Seeing the Light

Kirkman has been making neon for about 30 years, but he didn’t set out to do so. He moved to Idaho because he received a College of Idaho brochure that advertised Caldwell as a place nestled in the “heart of the Rockies.” He earned a history degree with an art minor.

“History was my thing,” he says. “I was going to be a professor, or maybe a librarian.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. He was employed but unhappy, so a want ad in the Statesman for someone who could work in neon piqued his interest. He had taken a glass blowing course in college and continued to practice long after he graduated, so he claimed he knew all about neon. He got the job.

Now, he owns the last dedicated neon sign shop in town. “Most sign companies had someone like me on staff,” Kirkman says. “But with the onset of LED lighting, a lot of the need for someone like me went away almost overnight.”

The demand for neon isn’t what it once was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see Kirkman’s work all over town. The Pengilly’s sign? That’s him. The Ongi Etorri sign that welcomes you to the Basque Block? Also him. Same with the giant neon wings at the Boise Airport and the restored sign that hangs outside The Olympic. Oh, and tattoo shops. So many tattoo shops. Kirkman can’t explain why tattoo shops gravitate toward neon. “But I’m really glad they do,” he says.

As a trained artist, Kirkman also creates neon art for himself — his workshop is full of it. (“Everything you see here is for sale,” he says, gesturing around the room.) He keeps a small notebook handy to capture inspiration. He’s been a key collaborator for other local artists, too, who want to incorporate neon into their work.

But on a day-to-day basis, repairs and commissions are what keep him busy. He’s worked on all sorts of custom projects, from a giant installation in the shape of a circuit board to an unusual private commission in the shape of a key part of a man’s anatomy.

Kirkman wakes with the sun, no matter the season, and heads into the shop. He has a longtime apprentice who assists him when the workload is heavy. “I try to work seven hours a day,” he says, including some weekends. “But I like what I do, so it’s not hard to get up in the morning.”

Neon isn’t getting any less expensive, Kirkman says. His glass, for example, has to be shipped in from Minnesota because suppliers to neon artists are becoming few and far between. But that hasn’t slowed Rocket Neon. Kirkman welcomes visitors to see his shop; he says he gets walk-ins every week. Some are locals who have passed by a million times and are curious about what goes on inside. Some are out-of-towners drawn in by the sign.

The number of professional neon makers may be dwindling, but Kirkman plans to keep the craft alive for Idaho. He has listened to over 600 audiobooks while working, and he plans on listening to many more.

“I turned 65 this year, so, you know, my time is short,” he says about the business. “Maybe another 10 years. I’ll do it until I can’t.”

You can find Rocket Neon at 530 West Myrtle Street in Boise. To inquire about commissions, repairs, or to purchase Kirkman’s original artwork, email rocketneon@gmail.com or call (208) 371-7147.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Julie Sarasqueta. Julie is a writer and tarot reader who lives in Boise.

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by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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