Robbie Ingui was waiting tables and studying to be an oceanographer in the mid-1980s when he first tried his hand at making neon art. He had been around neon all his life. His father Gasper owned a small neon specialty shop in Ridgewood, Queens called Artistic Neon Inc. (est .1971) and Robbie started poking around the shop at age 10 or 12, assisting his dad with minor things. But he hadn’t considered a career in the highly specialized field of neon glass bending until he realized just how much advanced math was involved in his college major. When it came time to register for classes for his junior year, he didn’t show up. Instead, he went to Artistic Neon, and told his father that he wanted to pursue the art of neon bending full time. “[My father] didn’t say a word,” Robbie recalls. “There was never, ‘Son, you’re going to take over the business.’ He just picked up a tube of glass and said, ‘Let’s go into the fires,’ and that was it.”
It was only five years into Robbie’s apprenticeship—a process that normally takes five to ten years—that his father Gasper, then 62, decided it was time to retire. Robbie was only 24 but Gasper knew his son was ready. “He has a lot of talent, and not because of me—he has a lot of vision and imagination and I think you need that in this business,” he says.
Their relationship—father and son, mentor and mentee, and colleague and colleague—is chronicled in a new short documentary called Gasper & Son, directed by Hannah Jayanti, Jen G. Pywell, and Miguel A. Rodriguez and produced by Greenpointers.com, Ugly Art Room, LLC & Freckless Productions. Gasper & Son traces the history of neon from its heyday in the early-to-mid 20th century to the present, focusing on the challenges of owning a small business in New York through the eyes of the Ingui family and several local business owners who have commissioned work from Artistic Neon.
Pywell, one of the film’s directors and a Queens native who owned and operated the Greenpointers blog for several years, discovered Artistic Neon when she was obsessed with hand-painted signs in early 2013; she was hoping to find someone to teach her how to make them, and Artistic Neon offered them on its website at the time. But when interest in hand-painted signs began to decline during the recession, Robbie discontinued the service that he had outsourced to an independent contractor. So Pywell asked if Robbie could teach her his trade instead, which he politely declined: “It takes four to ten years to learn how to that. It’s not something you just pick up.”
With apprenticeship off the table, Pywell decided to ask Robbie to make her an attention-grabbing neon sign for Greenpointers’ markets and various events, and film the process for the blog. “As we started filming, we realized there was so much more to the story than just this particular sign, between Robbie and his amazing father, and all of the challenges of being a small business in New York City, particularly with a hand-craft that takes time,” she says.
Aside from his sign-making for mom-and-pop shops around town, Robbie does neon work for commercials, movies and TV shows like Saturday Night Live. He’s worked on window displays and with artists — he’s virtually done it all. And virtually all by himself. Now in his late forties, Robbie has operated Artistic Neon on his own for the past twenty-five years. Most of all, he loves restoring signs that have fallen into disrepair to their former glories.
Robbie’s custom green, bubble-lettered sign for Earwax Records
“As New Yorkers, you know we love stories, and old signs have stories,” he says. “You start talking to the grandfather or the mother and they start telling you stories, like, ‘I was 12 years old, I remember watching that sign going up the building!’ We all have a story.”
The restoration of the heavily rusted 1950s Rainbow Room sign in Asbury Park, New Jersey was one of his favorite projects. The Asbury Park Historical Society kept the sign in storage for fifteen years before Robbie won a bid to repair it. “This was a really great supper club, where Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to dance, so it now hangs in the Asbury Park Transportation Center as a monument to the town’s musical history,” he says.
“Neon signs are intrinsically connected to the businesses they represent,” says Thomas Rinaldi, author of New York Neon, a survey of New York’s neon history with photos of two hundred signs. “The loss of the signs takes a toll not just on the aesthetic of the streetscape, where an old sign adds so much interest and character—the signs almost always mark the spot of an old, independent business that is an anchor of its neighborhood, an important part of the identity of the city.”
Robbie knows he works in a niche field, particularly vulnerable to changing consumer tastes and the ebb and flow of the economy. When he got his start in the early 1990s, there were fewer than two hundred neon sign makers across the country. “The old timers were passing away, or not passing it on, and the youngsters weren’t so interested,” Robbie says. There are only a handful of neon experts left today in New York. The majority of business owners go for cheaper options: LEDs, or computer-generated, mass-produced vinyl or plastic signage. Some shop owners even buy LED signs made to look like neon, a low-cost alternative to the real thing. But both Robbie and Rinaldi believe we’re in the early stages of a renaissance in the craft, albeit on a much smaller scale than neon’s mid-century peak, when neon signs were truly ubiquitous symbols of classic New York. Designers and architects are rediscovering the arresting visual power of the glowing signs, and they go to Robbie for their specialty neon. “It’s still such a unique and appealing medium that nothing else can really equal,” says Rinaldi.
A restoration of family-owned Italian bakery Circos Pastry Shop
Despite an uptick in neon appreciation in recent years, making ends meet for Artistic Neon hasn’t been easy. As Gasper says in the documentary, “There are times when you don’t get paid, and you gotta fight for your money. With all the problems that you have when you’re running your own little shop, you overlook it, because you enjoy what you’re doing.” Robbie shares his father’s complaints but he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life.
“It’s not just signage—it’s art,” he says. And sadly, “most artists don’t understand business. ‘It’s not about the money, man,’ you know.’”
“Well, that’s why they can’t make a business out of it,” Robbie explains. “I happen to be an artist and I can also run a business. As long as the work comes in, the rest is easy.”
(Photos: Gasper & Son)