Cuban artist works to restore vintage neon signs in Havana
Just as day fades to night the blazing green neon sign of La Pelota, a 24-hour cafeteria, flashes on to beckon passersby inside for a cup of coffee. At the nearby Charles Chaplin theater the neon letters atop the canopy also begin to gleam.
The neon signs of the 1940s and 1950s began to flicker off after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and many Havana streets descended into decades of darkness until artist Kadir López Nieves’ Habana Light Neon + Signs project began bringing a glow back to the city. In its day, Havana boasted thousands of neon signs and rivaled New York and Paris with its flashy illumination.
Working with his partner, Adolfo Nodal, a Cuban American from Los Angeles who helped lead that city’s efforts to restore its old neon signs, the pair and their team have restored more than 50 vintage neon signs over the past four years. Habana Light’s handiwork can now be seen on the brightly hued signs that light up theaters, cabarets, bars, hotels and restaurants across the city.
“This is what art does: it brings light to darkness,” says López.
The signs themselves aren’t restored — “I preserve rust,” says López — but rather the damaged neon lettering and images.
Among the venues that now shine with neon restorations are the Tropicana nightclub, the Floridita bar, the Inglaterra, Plaza and Deauville hotels; the Prado 264 restaurant, the Lafayette bar and restaurant, Las Americas hardware store, and a dozen movie theaters
López and his team also have lit up Havana by convincing some 20 private businesses to ditch their plastic signs and replace them with neon. The signs generally cost between $200 and $3,000 but they help keep the self-financing project going. “This way we can get some cash so we can keep moving with the restorations,” López says.
Neon enthusiasts from around the world also have helped with the effort.
The New York neon company Let There be Neon, for example, signed a strategic partnership with Habana Light in 2017 and has donated materials such as the tubing, wiring and transformers needed to restore the vintage signs and consulted with Lopez and Nodal on designs.
“The Habana Light project is absolutely fascinating. We’re excited to be a part of it,” said Jeff Friedman, the owner of the New York company. Eventually, he said, he’d like to see the relationship evolve so there could be educational exchanges between U.S. and Cuban neon artists or so especially challenging neon restorations might be sent to his company for work and then shipped back to Havana. U.S. regulations don’t currently allow that, he says.
After World War II when the kinetic energy of neon signs was exploding across the U.S. landscape, he says, something similar was happening in Havana. “Havana nightlife was exploding and what followed were the signs. What was going on with neon in the 1940s and 1950s in Havana was not too different from what was going on in Las Vegas,” said Friedman. “But then in the 1960s, it just stopped.”
Although the streets of Cuba are like a vintage car museum with Chevy Bel Airs, Impalas and Studebakers still chugging along, the fate of the advertising signs of the 1950s was different. “Most of those signs were removed from the cityscape while building a new society,” López says. They were no longer politically correct.
After the consumer products and services they advertised were no longer available as store owners fled into exile and the U.S. trade embargo took effect, many of the old signs were hauled down and used for scrap or repurposed to become parts of roofs or fences.
“They turned into something else because of necessity,” López says. “They changed their meaning.”
Others, plagued by the vagaries of salt air and tropical weather, deteriorated in place.
By creating beauty with the restored vintage signs, López’s hope is that there will be a domino effect that will lead to a transformation of neighborhoods.
During the 2015 Havana Biennial, Habana Light debuted restored signs at the Payret and Megano theaters and several others as part of López’s “Alumbrando el Barrio” (Lighting up the Neighborhood) installation.
For the 2019 Biennial, which will run April 12-May 12, the signs of San Rafael and Galiano Streets, once the center of Havana’s high-end shopping district, are being restored. Some of them are 15 to 20 feet tall and installing them is a delicate operation.
For decades these were gloomy streets by night. By day the stores often displayed only a sparse collection of goods but now the Habana Light project is returning some of the vibrancy to Galiano and San Rafael, which Cubans know as el búlevar, the boulevard .
“When you bring light to something that was dark, it really starts to change people’s thinking,” says López. “It will look completely different — past and present co-existing in a new way.”
So far the marquees of 12 theaters around the city have been restored, even though some of them aren’t operating. “Immediately this has created a reaction, and now three years later some of the theaters are starting to be renovated,” says López. And some of the once shuttered movie houses are now being offered to artists and musicians for community projects.
The roof of the iconic Cine Rex, an art deco duplex movie theater on San Rafael, had fallen in. But now with the help of collaborators from all over the world, it is being renovated and will become a center celebrating neon. “My ambition is that this will survive me,” says López.
With Havana turning 500 years old this year, the goal is not to try to roll back time to make the city what it once was, but rather “to see the present with the authenticity of the original,” says López. “This is my contribution to the city that fed my appetite for art.”
Born in Las Tunas province in 1972, López has long been fascinated by what he calls the cycle of memory and layers of the past that inform the present. His work has been shown at more than 90 international shows and exhibitions, including Art Basel Miami, and when the Obama family visited Cuba in 2016, he gave Michelle Obama a piece of his art.
“My work has always had elements of the past,” he says. Oil and canvas alone didn’t really convey what he was going for, so he has incorporated old letters, stock certificates and advertising into his work to reveal layers of the past and create something entirely new.
López has scoured the island for old signs — including some that were used for target practice and are pocked with bullet holes — which he transforms by layering translucent photos or images that he paints or draws on them. An old Coca Cola sign, for example, now bears the image of Sitting Bull.
Though a vintage Norge sign was originally intended to sell refrigerators, by engraving the image of a little girl on a farm on it, he has created something else. When the neon light is off during the day, the image can be seen more clearly and the new story emerges.
As he collected the old signs, he realized that some of them were meant to be illuminated and thus began his obsession with neon. Many of the old neon letters were broken and he had new ones made abroad, but eventually he learned the craft himself. He moved his car out of the garage and turned that into a neon workshop at his studio and gallery in Havana’s Kohly neighborhood.
“I found it fascinating to do art with neon,” says López, ”but it’s not an easy art to do.”
After getting the neon bars from Mexico and other places around the world, often via suitcases, López and his team trace out the patterns they want to use on fiberglass paper, carefully calculating the bends and turns the letters must take and then the glass is bent in the air and mounted on the pattern.
“After you get the shape, you put in the colors,” he says. Argon gas turns a sign blue; neon gas, red. Using just those two base colors and colored glass tubes, a neon artist can come up with 80 colors. Running an electric current through the glass tube makes the atoms in the gas glow.
Each sign requires about a month to restore. When they’re completed, they’re often hoisted aloft along narrow streets by rope — the traditional way. López and his team have about 30 signs currently awaiting restoration. For signs that are too far gone and missing pieces, they study old videos and photos to recreate the original look.
Since the signs are displayed outdoors not in a gallery, he says it really expands their impact. “I feel like I’m doing something that belongs to everyone,” López says.
Plus he likes the symbolism of lighting up Havana again.
The restored signs, he says, force people to look up and notice, for example, the streamlined curves of the Deauville Hotel, where an ice-blue neon sign now calls out to tired travelers. But beyond that, the act of looking up, instead of being immersed in what is going on at street level, also can provide another perspective on life.
“You look up, you start to imagine, to dream. Metaphor is the only way to impact large numbers of people. Change is always happening. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not,” says the artist. “Art should be to illuminate people’s minds.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi