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By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters)

After dusk in Havana, an ice-blue neon sign illuminates the faded facade of the Cine El Megano, one of many abandoned movie houses in the Cuban capital, lighting up a once vibrant corner at the heart of the Caribbean city that had gone pitch black in recent decades

The glowing neon italic letters fill the building’s colonial facade with an art-deco accent between the doors below and the wraparound balcony above.

 

Cuban artist Nieves, who is restoring the vintage neon signs of the city, works in Havana
Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves, who is restoring the vintage neon signs of the city, works in his workshop and gallery, in Havana, Cuba February 19, 2018. Picture taken February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

It is the work of Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves, who is restoring the vintage signs of the cinemas, hotels and cabarets that lit up Havana’s nightlife in its 1950s heyday.

 

New York-based neon sign maker Jeff Friedman and Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves work at Lopez Nieves' workshop and gallery, in Havana
New York-based neon sign maker Jeff Friedman (R) and Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves work at Lopez Nieves’ workshop and gallery, in Havana, Cuba, October 27, 2017. Picture taken in October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

 

His project, dubbed “Habana Light Neon + Signs“, has so far restored around 50 signs, reflecting a broader revival in Havana. The city, one of the architectural jewels of Latin America, has been enjoying a tourism boom.

 

Pablo Rumbaut bends a neon glass at the workshop and gallery of Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves (not pictured) who is restoring the vintage neon signs of the city, in Havana
Pablo Rumbaut bends a neon glass at the workshop and gallery of Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves (not pictured) who is restoring the vintage neon signs of the city, in Havana, Cuba February 19, 2018. Picture taken February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

“They called it the Broadway or Paris of the Caribbean because it had so much light and brilliance,” said Lopez Nieves, during an interview in his workshop and gallery. “But when I started out the project…Havana was switched off in terms of light.”

 

Man fixes the electric wiring of a neon sign in Havana
A man fixes the electric wiring of a neon sign, at the workshop and gallery of Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves (not pictured), who is restoring the city’s signs, in Havana, Cuba February 19, 2018. Picture taken February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

After Fidel Castro‘s 1959 leftist revolution, many of Havana’s ritzy entertainment venues, often run by American mobsters and frequented by the rich and famous, were shuttered or slowly became run-down.

 

Neon sign shines over the entrance to the cabaret Tropicana, in Havana
A neon sign shines over the entrance to the cabaret Tropicana, in Havana, Cuba February 20, 2018. Picture taken February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

Over the decades, tropical weather wrought havoc on their neon signs. The Communist-run island – labouring under a U.S. embargo – often lacked the funds and know-how to fix them.

 

As elsewhere, other forms of lighting – such as LEDs – proved cheaper and the ornate neon signs were abandoned

Lopez Nieves, whose work plays with memory and nostalgia, set about restoring the neon lights of a dozen cinemas as a project for the Havana Biennial arts festival in 2015. His work delighted locals.

 

Neon sign shines above the entrance of a the Hotel Inglaterra, in Havana
A neon sign shines above the entrance of the Hotel Inglaterra, in Havana, Cuba February 13, 2018. Picture taken February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

“It’s lending more life to the city at night,” said Alberto Echavarria, 68, guarding a carpark down the road from the Cine Megano. He said the sign recalled the once “fabulous” ambiance of the neighbourhood, which lies close to Havana’s neo-classical Capitol Building.

 

Cuban artist Nieves works in his workshop and gallery, in Havana
Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves, who is restoring the vintage neon signs of the city, works in his workshop and gallery, in Havana, Cuba February 19, 2018. Picture taken February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

Shining incandescent from afar, the sign also helped to make the run-down area more salubrious by chasing away shady characters, he said.

Obscure zones would go from being marginal to being photographed,” said Lopez Nieves, who then started restoring other neon signs, using historic documents such as old photographs for guidance. “A personal project turned into a social project.”

 

Cars drive on a street as a neon sign shines above the entrance of a the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana
Cars drive on a street as a neon sign shines above the entrance of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, Cuba February 15, 2018. Picture taken February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

The initiative has become self-financing, thanks to the sale of new commercial signs to Cuba’s fledgling private sector, costing between $200 and $3,000.

Close to Havana’s seafront, the “Bar Cabana” sign flashes red, while around the corner “La Farmacia” restaurant sign burns white.

 

Neon sign of the Sloppy Joe restaurant shines above the entrance, in Havana
A neon sign of the Sloppy Joe restaurant shines above the entrance, in Havana, Cuba February 15, 2018. Picture taken February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

Lopez Nieves says he has a large contract to restore the lights at Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub, which in its prime boasted famous patrons such as Hollywood stars Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart.

Amid a global neon revival, the initiative started attracting enthusiasts from all over the world, who offered their expertise, he said.

 

Artists Nieves, who is restoring vintage neon signs of the city, poses in Havana
Cuban artist Kadir Lopez Nieves, who is restoring vintage neon signs of the city, poses with one reading, “Victory”, at his workshop and gallery, in Havana, Cuba February 19, 2018. Picture taken February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

“I love (neon) because it’s an organic light that lives and breathes. And then to discover an entire city: it’s almost like finding a treasure box,” said Jeff Friedman, who runs a New York-based neon sign manufacturer, during a trip to Havana.

 

Cars drive on a street as a neon sign shines above the entrance of the Floridita bar in Havana
Cars drive on a street as a neon sign shines above the entrance of the Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba February 13, 2018. Picture taken February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

 

Foreign expertise has come in handy, Lopez Nieves said. There are only a few craftsmen left in Cuba who know how to bend the neon tubes into letters and fill them with gas to create different colours.

 

 

 

Lopez Nieves hopes to safeguard that knowledge with his next project: the creation of a neon centre in the abandoned art deco cinema “Cine Rex”. It would host a museum and workshops, as well as a store for new and classic designs.

He plans to open it in December.

“Neon is having an important revival,” he said, “and I’m glad we’re part of that.”

 

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)

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