A man trekked all over North America in an RV to take 50,000 photos of vintage neon signs — here are some of the best shots

John Barnes / Neon Road Trip
  • Seattle-based photographer John Barnes spent 2.5 years travelling the US and Canada in an RV searching for vintage neon signs.
  • A form of advertisement, neon signage once dominated cityscapes in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Today, most have been replaced by cheaper plastic signs, and the vintage neon signs are few and far between.
  • In total, Barnes visited 38 states and five Canadian provinces, taking 50,000 photos of neon signs along the way.
  • This past March, Barnes published “Neon Road Trip,” a collection of highlights from his trip.
  • From a happy-go-lucky Italian chef to a dolled-up woman eating fried chicken, here are 22 of the most eye-catching vintage neon signs Barnes discovered as well as his tips for where to see neon signs today.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.


Seattle-based photographer John Barnes has been fascinated with the art of neon signs, or ‘liquid fire,’ since he was a boy in the 1960s.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripGunther’s Ice Cream neon sign in Sacramento, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Barnes remembers visiting New York City and seeing a dizzying amount of elaborate signs advertising shops and restaurants, from cigarettes that appeared to blow smoke to coffee cups that let off steam. They were “just phenomenal,” he said.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripReddy Kilowatt neon sign in Butte, Montana.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Five years ago during to a trip to Las Vegas, Barnes was troubled to learn that the gas-lit neon signs that once dominated the cityscape were few and far between.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripMartini glass neon sign in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Several months later, Barnes packed up his life in Seattle and moved into a Roadtrek Simplicity to go in search of the signs that remained across the US and Canada.

Courtesy John Barnes

Source: Neon Road Trip


Over the next two and half years, Barnes travelled to 38 US states and five Canadian provinces, taking over 50,000 images of neon signs.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripCactus Jack neon sign in Carson City, Nevada.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Barnes originally expected Las Vegas and New York City to have the most neon signs, but that turned out to not be the case.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripBinion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel neon sign in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Source: Neon Road Trip


“Vancouver, British Columbia, probably had more neon signs per capita than any other city in North America,” he told Business Insider.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripHeights neon sign in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Before heading to a new city, Barnes would map out as many signs as he could identify online, locating them by day and returning to photograph them at night. Often, he would spend hours photographing one sign in order to get the best angle.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripItalian Kitchen neon sign in Spokane, Washington.

Source: Neon Road Trip


About one-third of the signs he photographed he found after arriving in a city, like the Mint Bar in Sheridan, Wyoming.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripMint Bar neon sign in Sheridan, Wyoming.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Barnes told Business Insider that the biggest drawback was looking for a sign and realising it was no longer active due to neglect or moisture seeping in over time.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripSwan Dive neon sign in Austin, Texas.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Fortunately, in the case of this Monte Rio, California, pink elephant sign, the owner was willing to drive 20 miles out his way to turn it on.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripPink Elephant neon sign in Monte Rio, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Over the course of his trip, Barnes learned that the disappearance of neon signs was due in part to the adoption of cheaper plastic signs in the 70s, he told Business Insider.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripLucy’s Fried Chicken neon sign in Austin, Texas.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Today, most of the businesses with neon signs are mum and pop shops, he said.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripChito’s Shoe Repair neon sign in San Diego, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


While signs are unique to each business, Barnes noticed themes across signs in the US and Canada, such as the use of diving ladies and mermaids to represent motels with swimming pools.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripStarlite Motel neon sign in Mesa, Arizona.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Seafood restaurants often incorporate crabs and other sea creatures into their signs, Barnes found.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripFanciscan Crab Rest neon sign in San Francisco, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


‘Cowboys and Indians’ is another popular motif, both in and outside of the western US.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripMillion Dollar Cowboy Bar neon sign in Jackson, Wyoming.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Barnes told Business Insider that if he could do his trip over again, he would do more research ahead of time. “Like there’s a Mr. Peanut sign in Columbus, Ohio. I was in Columbus, Ohio, and I didn’t know it was there,” he said.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripGas station neon sign as the Timpanogos Harley-Davidson shop in Lindon, Utah.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Since his trip, Barnes has noticed a resurgence of interest in vintage neon signs. In San Francisco, for example, locals Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan offer regular neon walking tours.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripCastro Theatre neon sign in San Francisco, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


The Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, offers neon sign-making classes.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripThe Tinder Box neon sign at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California.

Source: Neon Road Trip


Barnes also knows about several private collectors in the US who are now selling vintage signs for $US20,000 to $US30,000 a piece.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripTower Records neon sign in Sacramento, CA.

Source: Neon Road Trip, Museum of Neon Art


“People are getting fascinated about Americana because it goes back to simpler times, less complicated times,” he said.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripTrue Blue Tattoo neon sign in Austin, Texas.

Source: Neon Road Trip


If US travellers want to see neon signs outside a museum, Barnes recommends visiting Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco and consulting the website Roadside Architecture or the Facebook group Vintage Neon Heaven for pointers.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripTwice Sold Tales neon sign in Seattle, Washington.

Source: Neon Road Trip


For those who prefer to stay home, Barnes’ new book “Neon Road Trip” walks readers through his trip highlights.

John Barnes / Neon Road TripCover art for ‘Neon Road Trip’ by John Barnes.

Source: Neon Road Trip

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