Ignite Sign Museum In Tucson, AZ

A bright yellow W painted on the side of a blue train boxcar.

I love to photograph old signs, especially one letter at a time.

One of my long time image loves has been to shoot old alphabetical letters. They can be one interesting character on the side of a building or a string of them on a dilapidated sign. Doesn’t matter. I like to shoot all sorts of oddball stuff. Within my group of professional friends I’m noted as a guy who goes off on more tangents than an algebra problem.

‘Round about age 18 I photographed my first letter, a beautiful W that I saw on the side of a railroad boxcar. I was intrigued with the shape of the letter and its color and background, even though I didn’t understand anything about typography.

Fast-forward a few years to a day when I stopped at a café for coffee on my way up north. The neon and painted metal CAFÉ sign, about to be replaced by a new and personality-free plastic counterpart, was resting against the side of the building. The peeling paint and broken neon tubes were spectacular! It was like I’d just found a new hobby; I’ve been looking at and photographing signage ever since, with a collection of somewhere around 2000 unique letters.

A neon and painted metal Cafe sign.

My mother-in-law lives in Tucson, Arizona. My wife, Sue, and I visit at least once a year and always in the winter. The Tucson sun is strong and welcome in December or January.

We found the Ignite Sign Museum during our last visit.  It’s the best of a 40-year collection of iconic signs, started by the collector himself, Jude Cook. It’s an amazing collection of everything from small display signs to a full size (and working) Arby’s 10-gallon hat logo sign and a Union 76 filling station revolving orb. You can walk up to the Arby’s sign and watch and hear the electric sequencers trip the traveling lights.

This is an amazing place! It’s obvious that Jude and the crew have great affection for signage, especially those signs that chart the history of Tucson itself. The store’s also stocked with great fitting t-shirts, neon items that would look great on your desk, and photos of signs and individual letters (I’ll see if I can get them to sell mine).

Photo tip: The typical way to focus a digital camera is to hold the shutter halfway down to acquire focus on a desired object, then recompose the image, putting the desired object wherever you wish it to be within the frame. If you shoot strictly jpeg images, as do most, your camera can be fooled if you shoot during the on-off cycle (if the lights flash) or if you just wait for the light to change. Auto, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority can be fooled if the shutter button is held down before recomposing, so check your LCD screen often, refocusing on the same spot between exposures but making Exposure Compensation adjustments as necessary. This little trick is especially useful if you’d like rich color and some detail in photos of lit neon tubes.

Ignite Sign Museum
331 S. Olsen
Tucson, AZ 85719