six months later First, I wrote on Instagram that I left my husband and kids and went to drive 348 miles alone to meet a bunch of strangers in Las Vegas. This was in January 2013. Over the past 10 years, many of this group of “strangers” have become my closest friends, fellow travelers, fellow adventurers and, dare I say it, my chosen family. We would not have recognized each other if not for Instagram.
When the platform launched in 2010 and I heard that instead of personal news, gossip and political opinions, it was just about sharing images, I jumped in and posted my first photo. It was a neon sign over a 1958 Rae’s diner in West Los Angeles, where I grew up. Confident that I was the only person who had ever photographed the old sign, I did a search: #vintageneonsigns. To my surprise, a bunch of photos surfaced, just like the ones I’ve been taking for decades. Other sign photographers were no less surprised. Los Angeles-based graphic designer Cathy Kickert says, “I had no idea other people were doing the same weird stuff,” while caretaker April Brian of Kalamazoo, Michigan, notes, “After all, I wasn’t alone!”
Our fascination with old signs has turned into an obsession with photographing them. While our friends and family didn’t understand our fixation on what most people didn’t even notice, or if they did, they considered an eyesore, we continued thinking we must be the only ones with this bizarre niche interest. . Mark Stein, a Denver-based software engineer, admits that “a few friends and family members knew about my strange obsession… but for the most part, I kept it to myself.”
I followed fellow shooters on Instagram and the accounts they follow and they followed me back. The next thing I knew, with some trepidation, I was driving to Las Vegas to meet with a group of about 20 people, aged between 25 and 60, from all over the US and Canada. Los Angeles-based writer Steve Spiegel, whom I met on that first trip and became a close friend I talk to every day, shares my concerns: “I still remember sitting in the Burbank airport thinking: “I’m going to spend a weekend in Vegas with a bunch of people I met on the app! This is madness!'”
None of us knew that this trip would be the beginning of an inspiring and supportive community of kindred spirits who would become friends forever. After that trip, many of us maintained regular, even daily contact. We have met for countless local “sign hunts”, traveled the United States (and once in Cuba) and held several group exhibitions. A diverse group of 20 strangers in Las Vegas has grown into an international community of over 220 people. In 2017, four members – Spiegel, Will Hansen, Mike and Marla Zach – christened the group Signs United. The group was inclusive and open to all lovers of vintage neon.
Because adults are bogged down in work and families, it is not easy for them to meet new people and make serious friendships. Many in our tribe have described feelings of isolation, isolation, loneliness, and lack of a sense of purpose. Our get-togethers, group shows, educational events, and conservation efforts have given us a welcome break from real life, as well as a rewarding creative outlet, meaningful connections, and a sense of belonging and purpose.