Give Me a Sign
A project with the power to turn discarded Chinese lightbox signs into bright, beautiful modern art worthy of any wall in the West.
HELLO! NI HAO! (or) 你好！
Want a piece of China? Want mankinds fastest modernization hanging on your wall? Forget fake terracotta warriors, this is the real deal. We are busy gathering amazing old Chinese light box store signage and re-badass'ing them. Now is your chance to own an awesome, truly one-of-a-kind, iconic piece of China's modern history -- Fortune Shipping? Prosperity Trading? Lucky Health Massage? Rich Man Noodles?! The project aesthetic is "Bladerunner" meets "Chungking Express," with a green, enviro twist to boot. Sound too cool to be true? Please allow us to explain with a bit more detail.
My name is Jay Speiden and I’m currently living in Shanghai, China where I work as the creative lead for a branded content studio based in Los Angeles. Back in the late 1990s I spent four years in Taiwan studying Chinese. It was then that I saw my first Chinese lightbox signs. At night, the vertical space above each avenue in Taipei was lit up like God spilled a bulk-sized bag of glowing Skittles into the sky. There were signs of every color, shape and size: purple, white, pink, blue, red — each sign emblazoned with its own Chinese character and emitting colorful light so clear and bright they cut the night sky like neon diamonds.
To my Western mind, these exotic, bright light boxes have always seemed like works of fine art. To this day, I cannot pass under one without wondering what it would look like on my home or office wall.
Much to the confusion of local Chinese friends and doubting shrugs of Western friends I've always thought that sharing these signs as works of art would be appreciated by art lovers and design minded people in the West. This project will hopefully prove my theory correct and give everyone the opportunity to enjoy these one-of-a-kind art treasures. Please people, if you're feeling this project at all, show you get it with a small donation so I can prove to all the naysayers once and for all that I'm not the "crazy sign guy" and that this idea is as viable as all the millions of over-sized English marquee signs letters that every vintage shop on the planet has been selling with great success for years now.
WHAT IS YOUR PROJECT IDEA?
ARE THESE SIGNS EASY TO FIND IN CHINA?
In short, yes. Each day in China stores move, close, remodel. There are a lot of reasons why a store might not need or want its current sign anymore, none of which concerns us. What we care about is making sure that when a store does tear down its sign, we're there to snap it up and set about turning it from trash into art.
WILL IT BE EASY TO SECURE THESE SIGNS?
Interesting question. The short answer is, yes. The more detailed response takes more explaining. I first started traveling because I loved the way it allowed me to see the world from a new and fresh vantage point. This new perspective, in turn, has the power to let you see your own world in a new light as well, flushing away the blindness caused by familiarity.
The reason I love this project and know it will be a success is because it perfectly skirts the line between the familiar and the exotic in Western and Chinese cultures, using both to its advantage from start to finish. In China, lightbox signs are very familiar to locals and are therefore not seen as anything of particular value. Once torn down, they're just trash in the eyes of most Chinese residents. In fact, if one volunteers to haul them away, they can often be obtained for free. This is because they're so plentiful and because Chinese characters are simply not mysterious or exotic to Chinese people.
But to the Western eye, these large glowing characters are iconic symbols of the exotic mysteries of the East. To the Western eye, what appears mundane and familiar to Chinese eyes is something strange and wonderful and every bit as exotic as say, a lush green lawn would be to the average Chinese person.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...
As an added bonus, each sign we use will one less item that will end up in China's overloaded landfills so, while we decorate the lofts and lobbies of the West with one-of-a-kind totally unique artwork, we're also doing an environmental service that is real and necessary. Finally, by purchasing these signs from the collectors that head out into the city to find them each day, we'll be providing a financial benefit to those who need it most, helping them feed their families and purchase necessities.
There are tons of old light box style signs here in China, most of which can be bought new very cheaply or collected used basically for free. Some of these are huge and bold with the wear-and-tear of a life out in the elements giving each sign it’s own unique and desirable markings and characteristics. This type of sign is rapidly disappearing, being replaced by new more modern styles.
Once finished, each sign will get a small mounted translation tag in the bottom left or right corner that gives a history of where the sign hung: what store, in what city, address, neighborhood, how long? These translation boxes should mimic the traditional Chinese chop, or the red name square that all traditional Chinese paintings bear.
Then they go on sale on a web site where people are invited to buy one-of-a-kind, custom, bright, modern, cool piece of art that are also a real bit of Asian street history. The site could also take requests for custom-sized hangings that could range between 12x17 inches to 12x17 feet.
The main costs are shipping, storage, assembly and materials and could eventually be licensed out somewhere like Urban Outfitters. Shipping costs will be minimized by only sending the thin plastic fronts between China and the US. A few basic prototypes
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
***(NOTE: This demo shows how we will build a light box frame designed to hold the front plastic panel of a Chinese light box store sign. In China, one box is generally filled with one single character. For the other, cookie cutter style sign characters, we will not need to build this frame box, but will just refurbish the character itself, adding our own LED lights, dimmer and braided cord.)
STEP 1: Materials / Tools / Equipment
Here are the materials, tools and equipment I used to make this project, there are plenty of other ways to do it so I’ll try to suggest some alternatives along the way
STEP 2: Design the Box
I started off by designing the box using the Sheet Metal tools in AutoDesk Inventor 2012. When I was satisfied with the design, I exported the flat pattern as a DXF, which I used to run the FlowJet.
STEP 3: Cut the sheet metal
I cut the flat pattern for the box on the FlowJet at a local fabrication shop. It took just over two minutes to cut this out and it is way more precise than I could do by hand. Once the piece was cut out, I rinsed it off and deburred the edges.
STEP 4: Bend
Using a sheet metal finger brake, I formed the box. It’s important to make the bends in the right order, otherwise you end up in a situation where you can’t make the final bands. I make sure by bending the shape in paper first.
STEP 5: Spot weld corner
I joined the corners using a spot welder, but you could also use hardware such as sheet metal screws or machine screws. Spot welding is so quick and asy though.
STEP 6: Paint!
I chose to powder coat the metal box with in mirror white, to maximize the light reflection on the inside. You could use spray paint or even do multiple colors. You can also leave the outside unpainted or paint it flat black.
STEP 7: Install LEDs
The Dioder kit comes with really short connectors and really long wires. I chose to shorten the wires by cutting and soldering them. You could also use solderless connectors or just leave them full length.
STEP 8: Slide character into place
I cut the acrylic sheet with a laser cutter(*Ill be using plastic front panel of a character box when the project begins), because it gives a nice, clean edge. A table saw or router would work well too. I used thick acrylic so it would be steady while tracing. Notice that it’s translucent white, which helps to diffuse the light.
STEP 9: Plug it and Enjoy!
Risks and challenges
The biggest obstacle to getting this project up and running will be the shipping factor. As such, my plan is to collect the good ones, strip off the plastic front panel to minimize size and weight and then ship them to the US via ocean freighter.
My partner in LA will pick them up at customs on arrival and take them to his studio in LA where they will be fitted onto customized lightbox-style frames that illuminate from within via LED panels. The cost and difficulty of shipping will be minimized by stripping them down to the front panel and storing the panels up until we can ship around 20-40 at a time. This will minimize shipping needs and cost and should limit shipments to three to four per year.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)