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Meet Todd Sanders, the Man Who Keeps the Texas Neon Burning

Photo by Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Todd Sanders has always been in love with neon signs. He remembers being enamored with the lights of all-night cafes and truck stops on childhood road trips, when he’d stare out the window at the neon glowing against the Texas sky.

“I’ve always been kind of moved by neon,” Sanders tells Wide Open Country. “It sort of feels like a full moon to me. It’s a special, mood-evoking sensation.”

And just as the signs have served as beacons for the road weary traveler, neon has guided Sanders throughout his life. Case in point: on an early ’90s Texas road trip in a yellow Volkswagen, Sanders took a wrong turn outside of Bastrop, Texas and ended up in Austin. After one look at the city’s retro neon signage  he was hooked.

“I told my buddy, I’m going to move here and I’m going to make neon signs,” Sanders says. “It came to me in an instant.”

Sanders opened Roadhouse Relics — part workshop and part neon sign art gallery — in 1995. Since then, folks have been clamoring for his vintage-inspired signage. Past customers include actor Russell Crowe, rock band Kings of Leon (his sign appears on the cover of their album Mechanical Bull), Miranda Lambert and Willie Nelson.

“Some people have said ‘My kids are going to fight over this when I’m dead.’ It feels good to make something that’s important to other people,” Sanders says.

Under the Glow

Sanders takes inspiration from mid-2oth century Americana. Muscle cars. Men in jeans and crisp white T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. A great American road trip down Route 66. Pin up girls of the 1950s. It’s not subtle, because subtlety has never been what neon is about.

“It’s loud and brash. There’s something really beautiful about it. That’s kind of like my art,” Sanders says. “I’ve said before that it’s kind of like the guy at the party that’s talking too loud and wearing flashy clothes but you’re hanging on his every word.”

Sanders spent the better part of the last three decades immersing himself in the history of neon. He traveled the country repairing old commercial signs and buying defunct signs and restoring them. He’s amassed an impressive collection of iconic Texas signage, including the famous 32-foot-long “Diesel Fried Chicken” sign that once stood proud in the far west Texas town of Van Horn. (The sign is referenced in the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country For Old Men.)

These days Sanders doesn’t do a lot of custom work. He ended the commercial signage portion of his business to focus on his own neon visions. But he does make an exception when the Red Headed Stranger calls. Willie Nelson commissioned Sanders to make several neon signs for his Luck, Texas ranch, including a glowing “WEED” sign.

We're WILLIE excited for today y'all! #luckreunion #welovewillie #lucktexas #willienelson #countrymusic

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“Willie feels like the next door neighbor. He’s so down to earth,” Sanders says. “He’s almost like Buddha or something. You can feel a lot of spirit with him.”

But Sanders’ favorite sign is still the neon he made for his now-wife, Sarah. It’s the one that changed his life forever.

“A pretty girl came in here in 2005 and bought a ‘Tattoo’ neon from me. We started dating,” Sander says. “Two years later, I made a neon sign that said ‘Sarah, Will You Marry Me?’ She accepted and now we have  six year old boy. We’ve been married for ten years.”

A Neon Revival

While neon waned in popularity in the the ’60s and ’70s, we’re now in the middle of a neon renaissance, Sander says.

“Now if you go on Instagram there’s thousands of people that are photographing neon signage and they’re collecting them. A lot of times, signs went to the dump. Now it’s far less that that’s happening,” Sanders says. “Some neon signs–I saw one on eBay for $75,000. They’re being appreciated more.”

Today, neon museums are popping up in glitz capitals like Las Vegas and L.A. Local governments are adopting programs to restore culturally significant neon signs.

A sign inside Roadhouse Relics. Photo: Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Sanders says the more signage becomes LED and fluorescent bulbs and plastic boxes, the more people long for the classic spirit of mid-century neon.

“The more we get into the iPhones and iPads and different things things there’s more of a push to go back. When CDs get so popular, people go back to albums. It’s kind of an analog mentality,” Sanders says. “There’s something about neon that reminds people of their childhood and simpler, more innocent times. People are really starting to embrace that sort of thing.”

What sets Sanders’ signs apart is the “weathering” they endure. They start out shiny and new. Then Sanders begins the process of retro-ifying, using Scotch Brite pads to create a patina finish.

The Texas native says no matter what neon-lit roads he travels, the Lone Star State remains his greatest inspiration.

“There’s a Texas spirit that is so beautiful. It’s been so inspiring to me. I’m still discovering the beauty of this state and the spirit that I feel here. Texas really encourages you–and Austin in particular–to be an original. It doesn’t matter what you are — embrace it and go for it and do it. Texas has really encouraged me to be true to myself,” Sanders says. “My pieces are a reflection of Texas and a tribute to the people and place.”

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Meet Todd Sanders, the Man Who Keeps the Texas Neon Burning