Take a midcentury drive through our most iconic roadside signs
By Celeste Sepessy
They were everywhere. Looming over hotels, theaters, and honky-tonks, visible before the towns themselves. In the first half of the 20th century, signs — especially of the neon variety — ruled the Southwest road, dwarfing the businesses they were built to advertise.
“Such shapes! Such colors! And such signs!” Tom Wolfe wrote of the region’s signs that were so bold you could see them from an airplane. “They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless.” See them for yourself in this quick list of entertainment and art, featuring some of the Southwest’s best signs.
BOOK: Route 66 Roadside Signs and Advertisements
Neon signs exist for a reason: to get patrons into businesses. Cruise down Route 66 in its heyday — especially at night — and drivers had countless neon-lit bars, diners and motels to choose from. Let the brightest, biggest sign win! In this new book, Route 66 historians Joe Sonderman and Jim Hinckley share their favorite vintage (and modern) signs from the Mother Road, including stops in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
ART: Chasing Neon
In 2014, photographer Stefanie Poteet traveled 26,944 miles across the United States. The four-month Chasing Neon trip resulted in photos of more than 1,000 signs, many of them in the Southwest, like the Valencia Bar in Albuquerque and Tucson’s Hotel Congress. Poteet’s motto? Save the signs.
FILM: Sign Painters
Before neon signs, businesses across the world relied on sign painters for storefront advertising. While the trend may have slowed down during neon’s heyday in the 1920s to ’60s, today hand-painted signage is, unsurprisingly, seeing an artisanal resurgence. The 2013 documentary (and its book counterpart) travel across the country to different sign painters balancing art and trade, including truck driver-turned-typography lover Norma Jeanne Maloney of Red Rider Studios, just outside of Austin.
FILM: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Forty years later, this sci-fi classic is still as oddly dazzling as the late David Bowie himself. The Nicolas Roeg film follows Bowie — an alien in human form — across New Mexico in search of water for his home planet. Enjoy unworldly desert views and small-town cameos alike, as the film pans from Albuquerque to Artesia, where you’ll notice old-school signs like the one at Hotel Artesia.