Think you’ve seen everything in Tucson? Well, head on over to the Ignite Sign Art Museum.
There are many rooms to visit here including one where you can have a seat and watch very old TV shows on a very tiny screen on a very old TV! If you want to go back Back to the 50s, this is the spot, surrounded by old signs on the walls. The first room to see features scaled-down versions of iconic signs that can still be viewed in Tucson, including the famous ‘diving girl’ at the Pueblo Hotel at 145 S 6th Ave, and the large multi-coloured El Con sign on Broadway.
One of the local artists who capture local signage in their work is Robert Loomis, who has paintings for sale in the gift shop. The fact that neon signs around town are not too well known now is a sign of the times. He writes that he “noticed all of the local signs whose hand-crafted neon beauty had been largely neglected and tended to disappear into the background of our post-modern landscapes. With a nod to the Pop-Art tradition, I became determined to foreground their often-ignored aesthetic charm and re-contextualize their graphic power.”
The largest room has several enormous signs, such as a ‘76’ ball and a KFC sign that used to grace 22nd and Craycroft. Fans of Vince’s Restaurant can find a miniature of its neon sign here, and Molina’s Midway Restaurant (1138 N Belvedere, closed in 2017) is given its own large showcase. A scaled-down version of the famous Hollywood sign is here too. There are literally hundreds of signs here going back to the 40s, many of them neon, but to learn why many neon signs are actually filled with argon and mercury, have a seat and watch the educational movie that shows how the glass tubes are made and filled with gas.
This is a working museum. Once the virus situation is under control, owner Jude Cook plans to resume hands-on experiences including classes. One of the projects will be restoration of the Grant-Stone Shopping Center sign, currently upside down in the courtyard. Those keen on learning how to restore such local icons will be able to enrol in a course to bring this large sign back to life.
Among the large signs in the courtyard that are fully restored is an Arby’s sign, made of porcelain, (from the corner of Wetmore and Oracle Rd), a Tucson Tamale sign, and the most recent addition to the collection, On the Border. The Moe Allen Auto Body Shop sign is especially fun as it features a bear holding his own sign “Bear Service.” The “Happy Bear” had advertised the body shop in the Phoenix area since 1955. The bear was rescued by Jim McPherson of the Arizona Vintage Sign Coalition. At one time there were hundreds of happy bear signs around the country (made by the Bear Manufacturing Company in Rock Island, Illinois) but fewer than 36 remain now, mostly in southern California. The sign here needs some restoration work, a project for the future.
There are other sign museums: an outdoor one best seen at twilight is in Casa Grande; there is one in Las Vegas; and the daddy of them all, American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. But no need to travel far to see a beautifully curated example of signs: this museum in Tucson, founded in Oct 2018, is a sheer delight. Highly recommended for all ages!
The Ignite museum is at 331 S Olsen, just a couple blocks south of Broadway in the downtown area. It is open Wed-Sat from 10-4.