The Man With the Neon Crown


Jim Rizzo of Neon Sign Works shows his collection of signs he has hung up in his shop in Oakland, Calif., Monday, March 16. Photo by Daniel E. Porter.

His name may never be in lights, but he will always be the man who makes the light. No, Jim Rizzo, the craftsman behind Neon Works, isn’t any sort of divinity, however he would hold the “Neon King” crown, if there were one.

Over two decades ago, Rizzo had a thought. He always loved neon, hell, he even went around the city asking applicable establishments for scraps of it to hang up in his apartment, so why not turn his passionate hobby into a full-blown business? Twenty-thousand clients later, Rizzo is still following his passion, and succeeding. Neon Works has done notable neon work in the Bay Area, with standouts that include the Castro Theatre and five years running as the Macy’s Union Square holiday display. If you’ve seen neon in the Bay Area, chances are, Rizzo was behind it.

“We are well-known for our neon and I don’t know why, but we are,” says Rizzo.

Neon Works’ warehouse is located on the industrial outskirts of Oakland. Housed between like-storefronts, one wouldn’t be able to pinpoint Neon Works from the exterior. However, upon arrival, Neon Works’ interior truly stands out. With squinted eyes, the warehouse, or better yet museum, shines with amplified colors and extravagant bright neon lights. On the walls of the open-office styled workplace hangs once-retired neon signs brought back to life by the hands of Rizzo and his team. If restoration is any indication of the endless possibilities that Rizzo can create from scratch, there’s no question how he was able to make his way to the top of the neon industry.

“We love what we do, and it shows,” says Rizzo.

The rise of neon signs is widespread in the Bay Area, let alone nationwide. Why? Because retro-chic is in, and nothing is more retro, and chic, than neon.

“Since last summer we’ve seen an influx of sentences in office buildings,” explains Rizzo. “They want neon on the wall because it’s fun.” According to Rizzo, companies like Pinterest and Eventbrite are requesting neon signs from Neon Works to go alongside their stylish modern-esque office spaces.

But with the recent booming desire for neon, like any other fad, will it fade away?

“There’s no question that neon is incredibly attractive, just the colors, you get attracted to the colors, there’s energy in it,” says Rizzo. “LED is super popular but it doesn’t have any soul to it, you know, it’s crap made in China.”

Neon tubes wait to be used in a project as owner of Neon Sign Works Jim Rizzo takes a call for an upcoming job in his shop in Oakland, Calif., Monday, March 16. Photo by Daniel E. Porter.

With complete devotion to his art, Rizzo is able to pump out handcrafted neon signs to whoever is interested, and currently, those who are interested already have invoices floating around on Rizzo’s desk. However, Rizzo, and Neon Works, won’t be around forever.

“When I’m done it will all go away,” says Rizzo.

So get it while it’s hot, but remember, don’t touch it when it’s hot…