Bringing Back Day-Glo and Black Light, Then and Now

The kids are all into tripping like Mom and Dad used to do.

From surreal stage effects to reasonable safety features, or from staging a rebellion to selling one, Day-Glo paint and black light lingers in our culture, triggering symbolic trends. Artists continue to keep these relatively new tools in their repertoire for historical context and contrast. Collected here are some contemporary twists on Day-Glo usage paired with historical meaning through the ages.

Image via Glowmania

Magic Then

It’s not just dropping acid that attracts Day-Glo paint to black light, it’s the brotherhood of magic. Literally. In 1934, an on-the-job accident at Safeway forced Bob Switzer, a burgeoning magician, into a coma for three months. When he came to, a physician suggested he take to darkened rooms, a circumstance that sparked Bob’s interest in ultraviolet light. During this time, he found similar footing with his brother Joseph, a fledgling chemist. Once all parties were healthy, they decided to collaborate. After pulling naturally fluorescent compounds from the shelves in their father’s drugstore, and in their mother’s bathroom, the siblings added shellac. Their hope: To concoct a new magic trick— a glowing paint, which when applied and choreographed under a black light, could create stage illusions such as a Balinese dancer’s head that detaches from her body. 

Image via TheSun

Stage Now

In Prague, currently nine black light theaters operate in this small city, and most recently, the dance troupe UDI travelled from Siberia to perform their latest illusional feat for Britain’s You Got Talent.

No longer just one trick in an illusionist’s hat, black light performance has evolved into an entire theatrical style. In each performance, players utilize a “black cabinet” technique and actors disguised in black against a black background in black light work with fluorescents to create visual illusions.

Their performance would certainly make not only the Switzer Brothers, but also Ken Kesey and the Fillmore proud.

Image via USACE/Flickr

Practical Then

Day-Glo paint, although meant to be entertaining, also happened to have more practical uses. During WWII, fluorescent clothing protected GIs from friendly fire in north Africa. Likewise, fluorescent buoys in the water indicated explosive-free areas. Quite possibly, at this time, ultraviolet light aided espionage communication too. Flight crews in fluorescent suits held ultraviolet lamps on the landing and ushered in planes by night. Today, construction workers, crossing guards, and firefighters don fluorescents for safety.

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Protest Now

However, such uniforms designed for safety can also orchestrate to artfully convey a need for new order. For instance, on Italy’s 2013 La Giornata della Collera or “Day of Anger,” 10,000 Day-Glo construction helmets surrounded the Milan Stock Exchange in a protest regarding job loss. Each hat represented a worker laid off from the previous year. Day-Glo, in this modern context, moves beyond its initial use. It’s not just about safety. It’s about unison. The bright color beaming in numbers generates glowing solidarity while surrounding a public art piece erected by the witty Maurizio Cattelan in 2010. As part of the artist’s retrospective, this work depicts the middle finger, ridicules a Nazi gesture, and pairs nicely with the workers' protest. Of his statue, Cattelan states, “It’s about imagination.” This too can be said of fluorescents in varying situations.

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Alternative Thinking Then

Comparable to LSD, black light and Day-Glo symbolically traded military associations for the underground anti-establishment. In San Francisco, between 1966 and 1968, Wes Wilson produced posters that were freely distributed after shows at the historic Fillmore theater. These posters, full to the brim of cartoonish bursts of neon with thick twisting lines, promoted the venue’s shows, and the emerging counterculture aesthetic. During this time, Wilson produced one poster a week, each of which grabs from the Surrealists’ baton, dosing itself with psychedelia or “mind revealing” imagery akin to, well, an LSD trip. 

Image via Tmagazine/New York Times

Mind Medium Now

Likewise conceptually, Mike Kelley, in the last decade of his life, dug deep back into Americana’s adolescence by re-imagining Kandor, the capital of Krypton, Superman’s home. According to these popular comics, Brainiac, Superman’s nemesis, shrank with all its inhabitants; years later, after much wrestling, Superman reclaims his shrunken home, yet incapable of restoring its normal size, must retire it to a shelf inside his Fortress of Solitude. Kelley, seemingly obsessed, developed more than 100 renditions of Kandor, utilizing black light and fluorescents to generate a psychedelic investigation. His glowing presentation harkens not only to the tale, but to trippy ephemera: isolation, inner teenage angst, creativity, and the mind's deeper, solitary recesses.

Image via JohnCoulthart.com

Suburban Psychedelia Then

It wasn’t long before the Fillmore’s 1960s line-up of low-brow artists, both musically and artistically, proliferated beyond the city and into the suburbs. Wes Wilson designed a Playboy cover. Advertisers followed the music all the way to bank. Literally, another Fillmore artist, Peter Max, designed an advertisement for the Chelsea National Bank. Brian Wells, in his book Psychedelic Drugs, asserts that linguistically, the word psychedelic shifted into a broader, glossier sense— meaning “anything in youth culture which is colorful, or unusual, or fashionable.”

Image via Hypebeast.com

LACMA Theme Park Now

in 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a retrospective for filmmaker and artist Tim Burton. This CalArts graduate displayed various films and costumes from previous works, but his “Carousel” installation, complete with black light, rotating sculpture, and surrounding wallpaper crawling with bright vivid monsters drew attention for its uncanny nostalgia. Burton has had a longtime association with Disney, and this particular piece reflects that nature—a theme from the past, ours, others, on film, in a park, a haunted mansion of imagery, imagineering one’s consciousness, in a more corporate, but less drug-induced fashion.