9 questions with Evan Voyles, Austin’s king of neon

A Q&A with Evan Voyles

Evan Voyles, the man behind Austin’s most iconic neon signs. | Photo via the ATXtoday team

This piece is part of our Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them at hello@theatxtoday.com.

If you know anything about the neon scene in Austin, you’ve heard of Evan Voyles.

Austin’s go-to neon signmaker, Evan’s work has been slowly lighting up the city’s streets for the better part of three decades. The signs outside the iconic South Congress businesses that give the area its signature vintage feelAustin Motel, Lucy’s Fried Chicken, Home Slice Pizza — all come from The Neon Jungle.

A few weeks ago, I met with Evan in his workspace, a former service station in South Austin. I asked him 9 questions about his work, his inspiration and about Austin. To find out what he said, keep reading.

What was your first introduction to art?

I think I made my first sign when I was probably five. It said ‘fort.’ I probably made it (and the fort itself) out of cardboard boxes, but I remember trying to pay attention to how the letters looked. And of course it was crude. As a collector, I wish I still had it.

When I got to college, I didn’t take any studio art courses at all. I took a lot of art history, and a lot of history of architecture at the time: I thought I was going to become an architect. Of course, that completely fell through, and I became an English major.

The point at which I actually started to become an artist was — ironically — when I enrolled in law school, which was what my friends from college and my family and my girlfriend all wanted. But I quickly figured out I didn’t want to be a lawyer. And so I had this secret life where we’d get up in the morning and she’d go off to work at the law firm where we met — I had been a paralegal there. And she’d say, ‘Have fun in class.’ And I would say ‘Okay,’ and then I’d go down to the basement and work on a painting. And that painting was trying hard to resemble a vintage sign.

So, when did signs come into the mix?

After I dropped out of law school, my relationship with the girlfriend ended quickly. Just before her wedding to the next guy, I basically left San Francisco in a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser, thinking I’d be gone for six weeks. But I never really returned.

I spent two years just driving around the country, becoming me. So, in that time between ‘85 and ‘87, I was buying and selling things for a living, and kind of just falling in love with the road and small towns, and at the time, America. I thought America was pretty cool. I don’t necessarily think that so much anymore, but I did then.

I found a sign for sale, just out on the desert floor. There was stuff strewn in front of an “office” shack, with price tags that were so bleached by the sun you couldn’t read them anymore. And so I went inside and said, ‘Hey, there’s a sign out there that says “lunch.” How much is “lunch?”’ He said, ‘20 bucks.’ I said, ‘Sh*t, that’s cheaper than I thought it was gonna be.’ I gave him $20 ... By midnight, I took it back to my place, put light bulbs in it, and it worked. And I just fell into addiction. A light came on in my head, so to speak.

The next day, I was back out on the road looking for more signs. It did not matter at that point whether it was cheap — which they were — it didn’t matter if it was heavy. I had a roof rack, and I had a vehicle, and I had ladders and I had tools, and I knew how to use all of those things. And I became a full-time collector.

Evan Voyles looks at a neon sign in his South Austin studio.

“I just fell into addiction. A light came on in my head, so to speak.” | Photo via the ATXtoday team

When did you stop collecting, and start making?

It didn’t dawn on me to cross-pollinate the paintings I made, and the ideas behind the paintings, with actually trying to make signs. The vintage signs I was buying and restoring were one pursuit, and the paintings were another.

Everything I knew about sign-making came from acquiring, loving and taking apart vintage signs. So, one day I just decided to try my hand at making a new sign from scratch. It was shaped like a coffee cup, and I hung it in a space which at that time was called South Congress Antiques. It had just opened in, I think, in November of 1993. It was owned by the same people who owned Uncommon Objects, down the street. I hung my cup in there and put a price tag on it for $1,750. Two days later, a guy walked in and said, ‘I love it. I’ll take it.’ ... That was customer number one. I had sold vintage signs there previously, but this felt more personal.

I was like, ‘Oh my God, this feels good.’ I didn’t just design it, but I did the imagineering on it, I built it, I assembled it. I made lots of mistakes, because I was self-taught, but I sold it. And then I did another one.

What was it like doing your first outdoor sign on commission for Tesoros?

When we lit it up, I just jumped up and down like a little kid. I’ve never seen that moment of ignition before, much less of my own hand. Of course, you never get that “high” again: but I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. To feel that sense of pride and joy — that exuberance over something, it is a true privilege.

When did your work start taking off?

The main objectives of a sign are to grab somebody’s attention and to make them want to go into the business that the sign represents. I’ve got exactly two seconds to complete those initiatives. So it’s got to be a sustained message, and it’s got to be interesting. The sign has to have a hook, like a pop song. Once I started figuring out these rules, and building signs that achieved those purposes, my career took off.

People wanted better signage than they were being offered by conventional sign companies at that time. South Congress back then was all antique stores. And I knew those people, because I shopped with them, I bought from them, and I sold to them. I was one of them.

Those antique dealers had been being told for years, ‘Yeah, get yourself a raceway sign with channel letters.’ But that didn’t reflect who they were as individuals, as funky, interesting, diverse businesses. And so, simply, I became the tribal sign maker because I understood the needs of my tribe and offered them what they wanted.

Evan Voyles stands outside his South Austin workspace.

“It was never my intention that there would be any transaction other than people would come down the river, look at the bait, go “okay,” and go inside the store. Now they buy the store, they buy the building.” | Photo via the ATXtoday team.

What do you think about how South Congress has grown in the last few decades?

When I was a kid at the ranch, we would fish the Pedernales River using trotlines, especially if we were planning a fish-fry party down on the river banks. You basically take a string or a rope and tie it to a tree on this side of the river, and go all the way across the river in a boat, tie up the other side, weight the middle down with rocks with fish hooks on it that you bait, and you can catch 24 fish instead of one at a time. It’s totally legal, at least I was told it was, and everybody did it who had property out there.

What I’ve done on South Congress is bait a trotline for 25 years. It was never my intention that there would be any transaction other than people would come down the river, look at the bait, go “okay,” and go inside the store. Now they buy the store, they buy the building. They were supposed to just buy koozies and baseball hats and flip flops and incense, or whatever.

It just didn’t dawn on me that it would turn into what it is now. I’m still working on South Congress, for my old clients and for some of the new ones, too. But it’s a different game. It’s a different mix.

You’ve made hundreds of signs for Austin businesses. How do you keep things fresh?

I do a lot of work on the same streets, over many years. I never want to — and never can — copy myself or repeat a design or a “trick.” I would consider that to be a personal and professional failure. So I’m playing a 3D game of chess against myself, and I’m playing it against the street.

I’m trying to make a sign that is compatible with the client’s needs and budget, as well as compatible with the building itself, the traffic, and the angle of the sun, etc. It’s got to work on all those points, and play well with the other signs, many of which are mine. I want my signs to say, ‘Look at me,’ but they shouldn’t scream it. A sign should look like it was always there, like it was meant to be. As if it grew out of the building, organically. Sometimes that’s a difficult objective, but there is always a solution to the puzzle. So far...

Evan Voyles picks up spare pieces of colored glass.

“It’s the most evocative and exciting form of signage I’ve ever seen.” | Photo via the ATXtoday team

Why are you drawn to neon?

It’s the most evocative and exciting form of signage I’ve ever seen. There are other forms of vintage signage that are interesting and beautiful and handmade and worthy of being considered as folk art, American or otherwise, but none that has had as much going on as neon signage.

Much of the history of American neon has been based on the dreams and expressions of mom-and-pop businesses, and that was still true when I began my sign-fabrication business in the early 1990s. Of course, some of my mom-and-pop clients became wildly successful, and graduated into nationwide chains, but the personal core is still the same.

I joke — but of course I am not kidding — that my signs “look” handmade because they “are” handmade, and were not “created” in a marketing meeting somewhere far, far away. But the fact is, I have expanded my client list beyond my original tribe of antique dealers, and am now building signs occasionally for international brands. The trick is not to lose myself in this development.

How do you think Austin has changed since you started working?

Here’s the thing: In my opinion, Austin hasn’t really changed at all. How it looks visually, of course, changes with the progress of time. But the essence of Austin has always been to be the place that people, at least in Texas, come to do their dream with like-minded dreamers.

We come to Austin to talk about ideas. I never thought about that as a kid. I grew up in a town with the university and the State Capitol as the only local industries. Austin became a city of larger ideas while I was gone. But that is simply a matter of exponential degree: the point is still the same.

Austin is a city where creative people gather, perhaps by accident. This is not a new concept, and that concept is not going to change unless we botch the initiative.

More from ATXtoday