Six months after I first posted on Instagram, I left my husband and kids behind and set out, alone, to drive 348 miles to meet a bunch of strangers in Las Vegas. That was January 2013. In the 10 years since, many in this group of “strangers” have become my dearest friends, traveling companions, fellow adventurers, and, dare I say, chosen family. We wouldn’t know 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 on and posted my first photo. It was of the neon sign above the 1958 diner Rae’s in West Los Angeles, where I had grown up. Certain that I was the only person to ever have taken a photo of an old sign, I did a search: #vintageneonsigns. To my astonishment, up popped a bunch of photos just like the ones I’d been taking for decades. Other sign photographers were equally surprised. Los Angeles–based graphic designer Kathy Kikkert says, “I had no idea there were other people out there doing this same weird thing,” and caretaker April Bryan, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, notes, “I wasn’t alone after all!”
Our fascination with old signs became an obsession with capturing them in photographs. While our friends and family didn’t understand our fixation with what most people didn’t even notice or, if they did, considered an eyesore, we carried on, each thinking that we must be the only one with this quirky niche interest. Mark Stein, a software developer in Denver, admits that “a few friends and family members knew about my weird obsession … but for the most part I kept it to myself.”
I followed fellow sign shooters on Instagram, and the accounts they followed, and they followed me back. The next thing I knew, with some trepidation, I was driving to Las Vegas to meet a group of about 20 of them, roughly aged 25 to 60, from all over the US and Canada. Los Angeles–based writer, Steve Spiegel, whom I met on that first trip and who’s become a dear friend I connect with daily, shares my apprehension: “I still remember sitting at the Burbank airport thinking, ‘I’m about to spend a weekend in Vegas with a bunch of people I met on an app! This is crazy!’”
Neither of us knew this trip would be the start of an inspiring, supportive community of kindred spirits who’d wind up forever friends. Since that trip, many of us stayed in regular, even daily, contact. We met up for countless local “sign hunts,” traveled across the United States (and once to Cuba), and had a few group exhibits. The ragtag group of 20 strangers in Las Vegas became an international community of over 220. In 2017, four members—Spiegel, Will Hansen, and Mike and Marla Zack—christened the group Signs United. The group was inclusive and open to any vintage neon lovers.
As adults bogged down with jobs and families, it’s not easy to meet new people and form meaningful friendships. Many in our tribe described feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely, and missing a sense of purpose. Our meetups, group shows, educational events, and preservation efforts gave us a welcome break from real life, as well as a rewarding creative outlet, meaningful connections, and a sense of belonging and purpose.