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The Unmissable Neon Light Still Shines

Seeing Brisbane through the eyes of a master craftsman/glass bender/sign master brings a new dimension to experiencing the city. The Neon Light Still Shines bus tour is a deft blending of art, craft, commerce, and heritage. A truly inspired co-production and collaboration between Chris Osborne (Australian Modern) and Michael ‘Mr Neon’ Blazek (Neon Signs Australia). I just hope this wasn’t a one-off event.

Drawing on Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra lyrics (“Xanadu, your neon lights will shine for you”), this tour was aptly named. Neon Signs Australia maintain and restore amazing works of art that can still be seen across Brisbane; signs that range from the iconic Milton Brewery Mr Fourex through to The Beat Megaclub neon. Much of the Brisbane skyline is illuminated by heritage pieces that have passed through Neon Signs’ workshop: think Stamford Plaza, Myer Lane, and the PA Hospital.

But, despite the trashy LED ‘new kid on the block,’ this is not a dying art. Mr Neon (and colleagues) still create and install new pieces for commercial and retail customers, partnering with established artists as well as working from their own inspiration. This means that many of us are already familiar with Mr Neon’s restaurant and nightclub work: from the King Street Precinct and Park Road La Dolce Vita, through to the fabulous Billy Kart sign in West End. And many will also know the public art collaborations that can be seen at Stones Corner, at GOMA, and above the King Street Artisan store.

Seeing Brisbane through the eyes of a practicing master craftsman is a unique opportunity to view the city as museum and art gallery. During the tour, Mr Neon imparted a wealth of information, spotlighting (well, neonlighting) working and restored signs—recalling neon gone by, and introducing us to the magic of Brisbane advertising artistry. And we also learned about the cost-effectiveness, and environmental benefits, of neon lighting versus LED.

The Neon Light Still Shines- Mr Neon at work (credit: Creative Futures Photography)

Towards the end of the tour, we were treated to a private visit to the Neon Signs workshop. It was fascinating to see Michael at work, to learn more about the colouring and bending of the glass, and to watch the magic unfold (although, apparently, Mr Neon doesn’t usually work in dress shirts and a sparkly jacket…). We were all completely hooked, and already thinking about which piece we could find a home for. Returning to Australian Modern, with the chance to admire a fabulous private collection of vintage and modern neon works (and enjoy the generous hospitality of Susan and Chris Osborne), the excited chatter in the room was only about the neon experience.

The Neon Light Still Shines—A Neon Sign Bus Tour was exactly as described: a tour, on a bus, in the dark, looking at neon signs. But, as a co-production between Chris Osborne (Australian Modern) and Michael ‘Mr Neon’ Blazek (Neon Signs Australia), it was SO very much MORE than ‘just’ a tour. The 2021 Anywhere Festival event was a memorable four hours in the company of one of the influential re/creators of neon in Brisbane. I just hope this is an event that will be repeated because—as the ELO Xanadu lyrics are still swirling round in my head—this is a special opportunity to “open your eyes and see.” If you can get on the Beaman’s bus, you’ll agree that this is a unique opportunity to learn more about Brisbane-based craftmanship, history, and art. Just be warned that you might leave the evening with a serious neon addiction.

Verdict: An unmissable neonlight on Brisbane history. Demand the chance to get on the bus, and to learn more about Brisbane’s past—and future.

Audience tip: The Neon Light Still Shines bus tour was a sold-out 2021 Anywhere Festival event (14th May, 6:45 pm, tickets: $95). 16+.

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Friday 14th May 2021 premiere tour of the Brisbane skyline and neon interiors.