YOU SHOULD KNOW: About Vancouver’s Weird Relationship With Neon & Lit Signage

January 23, 2012.

by Stevie Wilson | In the wake of Vancouver council’s recent protest against the ridiculously bright advertisements adorning BC Place, I’d like to make mention of the Museum Of Vancouver’s fantastic exhibit highlighting Vancouver’s ‘complicated’ relationship with lit signage. Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver is a compelling yet informative display featuring an extensive collection of Vancouver’s neon patronage. Since its opening last October, it’s been a popular spot for those looking to take a peek into the bright sights that once permeated the shadows of our greyest, dampest streets. Curated by Joan Sidle (who is conveniently hosting a Curator’s Talk & Tour this Feb 2nd), the exhibit is a great way to get in touch with some of our city’s coolest (and most controversial) heritage.

In recent years there has been considerable effort on behalf of the city and private investors to protect and revitalize many of Vancouver’s neon landmarks. While the exhibit includes much signage that most of us are too young to remember, the team at MOV have created an intriguing retrospective that appeals to a wide variety of heritage-savvy individuals (you don’t really have to care about history to enjoy staring at colourful lights).

With the restoration of iconic city sites like The Only and Save On Meats (to name just a couple), I think we as citizens have proven our aptitude for nostalgia. These sites and signs are a welcome piece of retro-Vancouver kitsch for residents looking to re-live a past they never got to experience, or to repurpose old memories into new ones. All across our city are re-inventions of the past that cater to a growing taste for trendy, accessible “heritage”. Even if the neon signs on display at MOV aren’t attached to your favorite spot for a cheap pork sandwich anymore, the statements they make against the black backdrop of the exhibit are indicative of what they truly are: pieces of art. Presented simply and without novelty, these artifacts are original pieces of Vancouver’s commercial and community past, and many of them have amazing stories to tell (seeing D.O.A playing the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret probably isn’t the ‘history’ your grandpa remembers).

Neon wasn’t just a staple of Chinatown or Hastings Street – the exhibit features signs from all over the city (which once boasted over 19,000 of them), with additional displays incorporating other characteristics of past decades. Think retro cars, kitchens, clothes, and more. The exhibit – if you haven’t already soaked it up – runs until August 2012. That’s plenty of time for you to work up the courage to ask your friends to go to the museum with you.

Images courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver and Walter Griba.


Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.


  • Lorne Craig

    Historic neon (and older signage in general) was expensive, and a lot of care was taken by its designers and fabricators. Contrast that with today’s ‘instant sign’ designers and cheap neon back-lit strip mall signage, and the result is a visual blight of stress-inducing ugliness. Here’s to the craft.

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  • Hungry Foodie

    It’s sad that you need to let things go before you can take them back.
    What else should we take back, I bet the list is incredible.

  • Diane Sparks

    I just recently discoverd Scout, and I most enjoy Stevies’ column. It is informative, intersting and well written by a younger generation with a refreshing and positive reflection of our city.
    Thanks Stevie for helping us see what a fabulous city we live in.

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