Issue Archives
Plugged in
Swirling gases and high voltage emanate light and capture the imagination.

Self-taught neon artist Kevin Russell, an owner of Neon FX in Tacoma, Wash., opened for business in 1989, borrowing $200 from his mother and using the corner of a friend’s ski shop to do neon.

“I have a serious streak of determination. I read a book on neon and watched a guy at a sign company, and that is how I learned,” Kevin says. “My learning curve was intense. I stayed up all night, every night blowing glass and it took a year and a half of daily aggression and frustration before I could make a sign and sell it. Just to make an ‘open’ sign was a major victory.”

There were setbacks, including his first sign— made for his dad’s business in Reno. It shattered in shipping.

“I worked very hard and was so proud of it. For me, it was like the destruction of a Picasso,” he says.

Kevin’s creations involve first bending tubes over a flame. Then he heats the tubes with 25,000 volts at amp to electrically vaporize impurities and injects rare gases before quickly sealing the tube. The unit plugs into a transformer, converting low voltage to high voltage, exciting the gas to light.

Part of the draw for Kevin is the chemical element combined with high voltage electricity, necessary in the creation of neon.

“The hazard part is sexy and the high voltage is mad scientist! Neon is a combination of fire, glass, and rare gases, like neon [burns red], argon [burns blue], helium, krypton and xenon. Small drops of mercury require extra care in handling. Then there is the vintage edge to neon that lends to its beauty. It likely will always be done by hand.”

You can view Kevin’s work at Neon FX, 203 S. 24th Street, Tacoma, or at the Rampart Gallery, 712 Broadway, Tacoma.