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Sunday, April 14, 2024

I Found My Chosen Family on Social Media

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.

Regardless of our day-to-day responsibilities, our group gave us all an escape, a chance to explore, connect, let loose, and leave our cares behind for a short time. There was a childlike energy on these trips. Everyone was excited to see each other again, share sign adventure stories, tips on new (old) signs we’d discovered, and just catch up on each other’s lives. There were “bucket list” signs on everyone’s “must shoot” lists that, once visited and photographed, were a big “score.” There was a giddiness to seeing a new (old) sign for the first time that made the experience that much better when sharing it with a fellow sign fanatic.

A typical local sign meetup, or “sign hunt,” was usually timed to coincide with a fellow sign friend visiting from out of town. The organizer would put out the word via Facebook or Instagram DMs, and whoever was available would join. The organizer suggested a general area—Orange County in Southern California, for example—and put together a sign list and route. Alternate plans, ideas, and suggestions were always welcome. We would set a meeting day, time, and place, sometimes at a retro diner where we’d share breakfast before setting out. Anywhere from eight to 20 members came on these day trips. On occasion, we rented a van to ride together, but mostly, we caravanned. It felt like a treasure hunt. We darted around, shooting the signs on the list, and found signs we didn’t know about along the way. Halfway through, we’d stop for lunch and, at the end of the day, we would share a drink at an old bar with a cool sign.

Curious onlookers and business owners would ask us what we were doing, strike up conversations, and tell us the history of the sign or business. Most of the coolest signs were in the sketchiest parts of town, which could be a bit hairy. On those occasions, we did our best to snap our shots and get the hell out. On one Arizona trip, the unknowing group stopped to shoot a sign and were warned that they had parked in front of a motel that was the murder capital of Phoenix. As Alison Webster, an administrative law judge in Portland, Oregon, says, “There is safety in numbers, so I always feel better going into sketchy neighborhoods, trespassing on motel properties, and exploring abandoned places with a group of friends armed with cameras!” We’d do just about whatever it took to get “the shot,” and whether it was warning one another of oncoming traffic, helping to hoist one another over a fence or onto a roof, or braving sketchy areas, we always had each other’s backs.

Out-of-town trips were much the same as local sign hunts but involved logistics like flights, hotels, and rental cars. Many signs on our lists were motels and we made it a point to stay in these vintage mom-and-pop type respites, not just to shoot their signs but to support the small businesses. When we traveled outside the group for business or on vacation, oftentimes we’d connect with a sign friend in the town we were visiting and either meet up for a mini sign hunt or get some local sign tips from them. The Signs United community offered a wonderful network of instant friends that we could connect with almost anywhere we went.

During the pandemic, some of us instigated weekly Zoom cocktail hours, exchanged art with one another, and sent custom personalized postcards; one pod of friends did a Secret Santa exchange.

The Signs United founders felt there was a need for an inclusive group open to all vintage neon enthusiasts, including fine artists, writers, neon benders, museums, educators, and preservationists—not just photographers. Many of us used vintage neon as inspiration for other works of art, such as small-scale models, paintings, jewelry, clothing, and books. The group's central mission, other than raising awareness and preserving these historical relics, was to support, encourage, and help artists grow their audiences and promote their businesses. Fresno-based small-sign artist Chris Raley of Route 9 Signs says: “[The group would] lift me up when I’m down and I’ve never had that before … This community has changed my life more positively than any other group I’ve ever been associated with.”

Of our sign community, Will Hansen says, “I’ve had friends over the years but had never established my core group … This has finally given me my people and it means everything to me. These are the people I want to talk with, travel with, laugh with, and create with. It took me over 40 years to really find people I love and want to hang around with.”

I share Hansen’s sentiments and then some. A year ago, when my husband suddenly became ill and passed six months later, these were the friends I reached out to first and most often. From the fateful trip to the ER to his last day, they were right by my side checking in with me daily, and sometimes hourly, while our family went through the unimaginable. Through my husband’s illness and since I became a widow, their constant presence, unconditional love, and support have given me strength, courage, and hope. It’s been seven months since I lost my husband, and I’m not sure I’d have made it this far without these dear friends. They have truly been a godsend.

Just like neon signs were manufactured to draw people out of their cars and into local businesses, Instagram drew us away from the internet and out into the world to meet new people, putting the “social” back into social media. I would never have imagined that it would connect me to my people, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Thank you, Instagram.

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