Portland’s Neon Dave Wants To Turn You On to Light as an Art Form

Portland’s Neon Dave Wants To Turn You On to Light as an Art Form

A glowing sculpture can transform your living room.


From our Summer 2021 issue

After a year of dimmed and emptied cities, home décor featuring neon lights, that quintessentially urban art form, is having a moment. Pinterest reports the number of searches for “neon room” is up 800 percent this year over last, and photographs of glowing over-the-sofa aphorisms like “Be Brave” are proliferating online.

This is good and bad news for a guy like Neon Dave.

“I started in neon to make art, not to make other people’s catchphrases,” he says from a cluttered studio in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood that, with its giant vacuum pump, various torches, and boxes of colored tubes, feels part mad-scientist lab, part glass-bottle depository. “I like that people like neon, but I like it for my own reasons.”

ABOVE Neon Dave adds phosphor powder to his glass tubes to subtly mottle their color, a technique he calls “dirty style.” For pieces that will be installed in homes, he can apply a coating to the back side of tubes to temper their brightness.

Neon Dave is David Johansen, Portland’s go-to neon-sign maker who’s responsible for many of the bright lights in Maine’s big city. In between commercial gigs, he tinkers with his own art: red and orange glass tubes twisted to resemble the sun slipping past the horizon, tidy rows of pastel horizontal bars like a rainbow brought to heel, or his current project, three crimped and curled rings that, when stacked just so, form a flower that glows magenta and a shade of blue like an electrified tropical bay. The kind of art, in other words, that he’d like you to hang over your sofa.

Johansen learned to create handblown glass tubes and fill them with light-emitting inert gas at a trade program and opened his neon studio in 2010. Early in his career, his art was literally darker, as if fighting the cheery hubris of the medium. But these days, he’s ok with color. “A lot of people think art can’t compete with nature,” he says. “But I can make the light that you only get at certain times of day that is so awesome. I can bring that into your house. You can always have it; you just have to turn it on.”