Havana three decades ago had all the seamy complexity of Gotham City. Walking the streets was a darkly, gothic experience. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, closing Cuba’s oil pipeline. Nightly apagones (power blackouts) mantled the city in gloom. I navigated the darkness past an obstacle course of potholes and rubble and wooden braces propping up teetering buildings festooned with makeshift wires and glassless and lifeless old neon signs.
In my mind’s eye, I imagined Havana in its 1950s heyday, its hotels, cinemas and cabarets pulsing with brilliant art-deco neon. Flashing signs beckoned party-goers into thrumming bars, nightclubs, and exhibiciones (live sex shows). Car showrooms blazed with technicolor neon reflecting off a long blaze of brightwork.
Neon is a living, breathing, organic light…slowly bringing Havana back [from] a long season of darkness.Kadir López-Nieves, Co-founder of Habana Neon Light + Signs
After the 1959 Revolution, the casinos and sex shows were shuttered, while the U.S. embargo and economic deprivation gradually made neon repair difficult. The high-voltage signs—a glowing symbol of capitalist excess—one by one flickered off, like fading fireflies, until fewer than ten remained (including the historic Floridita bar—Hemingway’s erstwhile haunt—and the iconic Tropicana cabaret nightclub; the monumental visage of Che Guevara in Plaza de la Revolución, backlit with a golden neon glow, dates from 1995). The city sank into freeze-frame desuetude. Once-glittering Havana went dark: a Hollywood stage set, its neutered neon signs creaking on rusted hinges or soldered into time-worn façades by the tropical heat and humidity.
Fast forward to March 2020…
I’m getting neck-ache doing double-takes as I stroll up the Prado. On my right, the Unión Arabe de Cuba and Prado 264 restaurant, each ablaze with green, yellow, and new red neon signs. Ahead, glowing ice-blue neon letters spelling “Hotel Inglaterra” lure me on. Turning right onto San Rafael, I’m met by an electrifying vision of a tropical Las Vegas-light. The street is thronged with locals gawking at blinking neon signs for the Cabaret Nacional sign and Cinecito movie theater, and beyond, the Giralt department store festooned with glacier-blue neon signs for Hotpoint and Phillips… the Café Boulevard, adorned with a glitzy red-and-blue sign… and the recently derelict Rex Duplex cinema, ablaze with turquoise neon announcing its metamorphosis as the REX Neon Museum.
Thank artist Kadir López-Nieves for putting the technicolor neon glow back into the Havana nightscape.
In 2015, López-Nieves began bringing these luminous icons back to life when he repaired vintage neon signs on ten pre-revolutionary cinemas for the Havana Biennial. The Biennial is long over, but López-Nieves’ art project morphed into a social project, inspiring him to illuminate streetscapes throughout Havana and especially in barrios that had long ago become derelict. His on-going project, dubbed “Habana Light Neon + Signs,” has so far restored more than 75 signs. Another 150 or so have been commissioned for restoration, financed by international sponsors or Cuba’s own burgeoning private enterprise sector.
Born in 1972 in the provincial town of Las Tunas, López-Nieves graduated from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Artes—Cuba’s premier art school—in 1995. Today considered one of Cuba’s foremost contemporary artists, his unique motif is his adaptive reuse of salvaged 1950s American sheet-steel advertising signs (embossed with such logos as Esso or Coca-Cola) that once adorned Havana’s boulevards, overlain by López-Nieves with enameled archival photographic images portraying a dreamlike socio-cultural statement about Cuba’s past.
Related Post: Is the Face of Havana Changing?
For the 2012 Biennial, López-Nieves had photographed Havana’s cinema and theatre facades and layered the images onto old and rusted metal signs, some punctured with tell-tale neon tube holes. The holes soon sparked the idea of incorporating neon into his art. “Neon signage is integral to Havana’s aesthetic, economic and cultural history,” claims López-Nieves, for whom his “Alumbrando el Barrio” (Lighting Up the Neighborhood) 2015 Havana Biennial project seemed a natural segue.
“I trained in the classical tradition, viewing art objects as permanent. At first, it was hard to conceive of neon as art,” López-Nieves told me as we toured his neon studio in the garage of his squat manse in the chic Kohly district. “A gas trapped in a tube? Then I realized, a fundamental value of art is that it brings light to darkness. Neon illuminates and thereby allows people to see what they couldn’t see before.”
López-Nieves tracked down Guido Hernández, the only man in Cuba who still knew how to shape neon tubes into letters and fill them with gas to create different colors.
López-Nieves’ light-bulb moment coincided with a fortuitous meeting with Cuban-born Adolfo Nodal, who as former head of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs led a decade-long campaign that restored some 150 of the city’s historic neon signs, starting in the late 1980s. Nodal assisted López-Nieves for the 2015 “Alumbrando el Barrio” project. They then partnered to launch Habana Light Neon + Signs as a far more ambitious long-term project, aided with supplies and technical support from Jeff Friedman of New York City’s legendary neon studio, Let There Be Neon.
Cuban craftsmen who could work neon tubes and wire signs by hand were mostly dead or living in Miami. But López-Nieves tracked down two neon specialists in Havana: electrician Osmany Fernández and glassblower Guido Hernández, the only man in Cuba who still knew how to shape neon tubes into letters and fill them with gas to create different colors. Together, they scavenged old tools and converted López-Nieves’ garage into a workshop.
Nodal spent huge chunks of time scouring Havana for forlorn dangling signs. Getting permission to remove and restore signs is remarkably easy in Cuba, says Nodal, who laments the bureaucracy—often a decade-long process—of receiving permission and permits in Los Angeles. In Cuba, the government plays a little role, he claims. Typically, in this twilight zone nation where building ownership is often murky, López-Nieves and Nodal need merely to obtain permission from a building manager (if there is one), or neighbors. “It’s mostly done at the community level. Rarely do we get any naysayers,” notes Nodal. “Cubans are so keen for progress, when las luces are finally turned on the locals cheer!”
Once the signs are removed, they’re driven to López-Nieves’ workshop. Depending on the sign’s venue and future use, the rust may or may not be removed—”I like to preserve rust,” says the artist—and any damaged lettering repaired. More typically, Hernández has to create new tubes from scratch using López-Nieves’ blueprint, often based on old photos and newsreel footage. Since most images are black-and-white, he often has to guess the original color based on his artistic sense of what seems most suiting. (The color depends on which inert gas, or mix of gases, the tube contains—argon for blue, helium for pink, neon for red, etc.)
Once the sign is repaired (typically a two or threeweek process), they haul it back to its original location and secure it in place, to the applause and squeals of wide-eyed neighbors.
“¡Que maravilla mas linda!”
Many signs are for still-active commercial establishments, such as the Payret cinema, the Hotel Inglaterra, the Teatro Mella, the Fin de Siglo department store with its flamboyant curlicue inscription, and most recently the entire neon galaxy at the world-famous Tropicana nightclub. Others adorn battered buildings that long ago ceased to perform their original commercial function, or any such function at all, such as the former Cine El Mégano to the rear of the Capitolio.
“The old cars are now part of Cuba’s national patrimony. The neon signs should be too!”Adolfo Nodal, Co-founder of Habana Light Neon + Signs
Habana Light Neon + Signs was initially funded by crowdsourcing, fundraising parties, and appeals by wealthy foreigners to adopt a sign (New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for example, paid for the new Teatro Mella sign prior to their playing Havana in December 2015). The project, which can be found on Facebook, has since become self-financing and a tourist attraction in its own right.
López-Nieves and Nodal’s endeavor was perfectly timed to tap into Cuba’s U.S. tourist boom and the global neon revival. In the past decade, a tide of tourist dollars wed to Raúl Castro’s economic liberalization fostered an explosion in private bars, B&Bs, restaurants, and other businesses. Scores of Havana’s cuentapropistas (self-employed) have commissioned commercial neon signs from López-Nieves, costing between $200 and $3,000. Meanwhile, Nodal now leads neon walking tours of Havana. And the opening of the REX Neon Museum in 2019 shone a light on the Habana Light Neon + Signs project while drawing a growing stream of tour groups and solo travelers.
The former Rex Cinema (1938) and adjacent Cine Duplex (1947) had fallen into tragic disrepair when López-Nieves and Nodal rented the decommissioned complex from the government in 2017. Their restoration of the 7,000-square-foot, trash-strewn space was a massive labor of love. Today the REX Neon Museum doubles as a showplace for many of López-Nieves’ neon-art installations, such as signs from the erstwhile Las Américas Ferretería, the Las Industriales’ “quincallera” (ironmonger), and the derelict Hotel Nueva Isla. Other displays inform about incandescent lighting and Havana’s neon heritage. The now-roofless former Cine Duplex has been rehabbed with newly upholstered seats for film screenings. And López-Nieves’ neon workshop will soon relocate here and expand to train young Cubans as neon artisans.
“It’s a labor of love. Every cent of the profits goes back into restoring the signs,” notes Nodal, as we stroll down Calle San Rafael, luminous with new neon landmarks. As we zigzag through darker streets still steeped in the seamy complexity of Gotham City, Nodal turns nostalgic at the sight of old yanqui cacharros chugging by. “The old cars are now part of Cuba’s national patrimony. The neon signs should be too!”
Like Cuba’s emblematic classic cars, the restored yesteryear neon signs reflect far more than mere historic preservation of iconic relics.
“Neon is transformational. It has a phenomenal effect,” adds López-Nieves. “The impact is immediate. People see Havana in a different way. Once marginal zones are transformed into places of tourist interest, while for local neighbors the neon inspires nostalgia and a brighter vision of possibility.”
It’s still a far cry from the pulsing cityscape of Havana’s 1950s heyday. It’s also a far cry from the blackened nightscape of only a decade ago. “Neon is a living, breathing, organic light,” adds López-Nieves. “It’s slowly bringing Havana back to life from a long season of darkness.”